Playing The Game

DSC01954tajmahalX.jpg

This blog entry about the events of Saturday, October 30, 2004 was originally posted on November 01, 2004.

DAY 378:  Every now and then back home in the metro New York City area, my friends and I, inspired by the movie Swingers, hop in the car for a spontaneous 2 1/2-hr. road trip to Atlantic City so that we can pretend to be high rollers.  Because of the free parking (and the fact that we are not high rollers), we often end up in the parking deck of the Showboat casino and eventually walk over to the adjacent Taj Mahal, Donald Trump’s palace of green felt tabletops, shiny slot machines and a pretty good buffet.

This big casino is of course named after the hundreds of little family-owned Indian restaurants found across America, which are all named after the big building in India, arguably the architectural symbol of the country.  The real Taj Mahal is located in the city of Agra, a six-hour bus ride southeast of Delhi.  Half the “fun” was getting there.

I had booked a bus ride from the tour agency in the hotel who assured me that my Rs. 300 ($6 USD) fee would get me a nice “air-conditioned” tourist class bus, which I figured would be worth the splurge because of my leg and all.  But I discovered that “air-conditioning” simply meant a fan mounted on the wall and tourist class simply meant a beat-up old bus where some of the seats were coming off their hinges.  I was the only foreigner on the bus amidst a crowd of Indians, mostly families all legitimately going to the Taj as tourists on a day trip that would return them to Delhi late that night. 

On the way to the bus I met an Englishman who had done the trip to Agra the day before as a day trip.  He told me that the bus dropped him and his friend off i the center of town with the excuse that “there’s too much traffic” and told them to proceed via auto-rickshaw — and that auto-rickshaw ended up taking them to a bunch of stores they didn’t want to go to (in addition to the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort).  A girl we met said that they tried to pull the same scam on her, but she stayed on the bus — there really was too much traffic and as a result her time at the main attractions was rushed and she didn’t arrive back in Delhi until two the following morning.


SIX HOURS LATER we were in the center of Agra, out of site from the Taj Mahal when the scam started while the bus was still in motion.  The “conductor” got me though, using the excuse that since I’m not a day tripper and needed to find a hotel, I’d better get off now and take a auto-rickshaw, “paid for by the bus company” of course, who would bring me to the sights after I settled in.  I really had no choice because the bus stopped just for me, holding everyone else up, until I got off with my bag.  I was led to an auto-rickshaw guy named Nati who “worked with the bus company.”  I told him to take me to the Shah Jahan Hotel recommended in my book, but (as expected), he started up with the “I know a better hotel” thing.

“No, let’s just go to the place I know.  I have a reservation, I sent an e-mail.”

He caught me on my bluff.  “There’s no computer there.”  He urged me to go to the other hotel to at least check it out, because “looking is free.”  The place was mediocre, even worse because it was in the middle of nowhere, requiring me to be dependent on his auto-rickshaw services for my entire stay in Agra.  I demanded we go to my hotel, which was just down the block from the Taj Mahal’s south gate.

After pulling teeth, I checked into my hotel, which wasn’t much of an improvement since it was just as shabby, but it was all about location, location, location — plus the roof had an obscure view of the Taj Mahal and the ghetto below.  I thought the game was over with Nati, but he kept on urging that he must take me around to see the sights because I paid for it already.  I argued and argued that I was “too tired” and what not, but he was persistent and then pulled out the guilt card — he wouldn’t get paid unless the company knew that I had made it to all the sights.  The hotel manager concurred. 

“Fine.  Let’s say three thirty.”


IN THE INTERIM, I went wandering around the Taj Ganj area just south of the Taj Mahal.  It was a small area with a couple of restaurants and guesthouses — nothing big like in Delhi — and I eventually just walked to the south gate for my entrance into the world-famous Taj Mahal.

Now I’d been on the road for over a year and was totally jaded on seeing new sights, but my Let’s Go had it right when it said “even the most jaded of globe-trotters often find themselves smiling in wonder as they behold the Taj.”  Despite the fact that the classic view of the Taj was obstructed with the bodies of the thousands of tourists (picture above) trying to get the same shot, the splendor of the real Taj Mahal was worth all the hype, even if there were no slot machines.  This Taj Mahal was constructed in 1632 by order of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan not for gambling and comp cocktails, but as the tomb of his favorite wife, Argumand Banu Begum, who died giving birth to their 14th child.  He loved her so dearly that only the most beautiful resting place for her would do, and so with the help of Persian architects, French and Italian craftsmen, 20,000 laborers and a whole bunch of marble, construction began.  The construction went non-stop 24/7 until it was completed, which was probably due to the fact that like the Atlantic City casino of the same name, there were no clocks inside to signal when it was time to go. 

I wandered the palace grounds, in and around the palace itself — as big as it was, it was still small that I imagined it for some reason.  Barefooted (a requirement) I walked passing the mosque to the west and the Jawab building to the east, with its archways that framed the main palace nicely. 


IT WAS ALMOST THREE THIRTY when I got back to my hotel and Nati was there waiting for me already.  “Where do you want to go?” he asked.

“Let’s go to the fort.”

“You’re the boss.”

I was talking about the other big must-see in Agra, the Agra Fort, constructed under order of General Akbar in 1565 as a military garrison and residence for the emperor.  Nati tried to convince me that the fort was the same as it was in Delhi so that I might not skip it — so that I could most likely go to stores he wanted to take me to.  Actually, on the way to the fort, we stopped somewhere against my wishes, at the “travel agency” were I should “book [my] bus ticket” for the next day before it gets full.  The guy there was most interested in having a drink (most likely tainted) with Nati and me than making a bus ticket sale.  I declined with the excuse that I was undecided where I’d go after Agra.

The Agra Fort was in fact similar to the Red Fort in Delhi, with its red ramparts (looking out to the Yamuna River), Diwani-I-Am (Hall of Public Audience), palaces, hallways, courtyards and gardens, all fit for an emperor and an army of tourists.  I wandered around pretty jaded (it was no Taj Mahal after all) and then went outside for the inevitable continuation of the game with Nati.

“I’m tired,” I told him.  “Let’s go back to the hotel.”

“I will bring you to a market.”

“I don’t want to go to a market.  Please, let’s just go to the hotel.”

He tried to tell me that the market had many nice things, from pashima shawl to silk scarves, etc.  “It’s okay, I won’t buy anything.  I have no room.”

This went back and forth, the way the games with auto-rickshaw drivers do, until Nati came out and laid his cards out for me.  “I won’t get paid unless I bring you.  You don’t have to buy anything, just look.  Looking is free.  And they give me money.”

Suddenly I was on the other side, finally hearing the side of the rickshaw driver rather than stupid excuses to bring me places I don’t want with no motive.  “So you get a commission even if I don’t buy anything.”

“[Yes.  More if you buy something, but I still get something if you don’t.]”

For some reason I felt relieved that it was no longer a game anymore and he was honest about it.  I told him I’d help him out by going to the places with him so he could make some money for his livelihood — I had no other plans for the day anyway.

“Promise?” he asked, extending his hand for a shake.

“Yes,” I said shaking it.  “I promise I will not buy anything.”

And so, we went from a big craft store to a textile store to a marble factory/store, as two hustlers going around.  I went in as the “tourist” pretending to be interested in stuff, just so Nati could get the payout for bringing me there. 

“Did you get the commission?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“Good.”

The last place we went was a big fancy everything-in-one place shop.  “They are slow with the money here,” Nati told me, the old scamming pro.  “Please stay 25-30 minutes.”

“Okay.”

I played the scamster, leading the salesman around to every room in the big place, pretending I was interested in this and that, always with the excuse that something was off about it, or I didn’t like the color, etc.  I managed to kill the 25 minutes for Nati and got out of there.

“You are my brother!” Nati said.  Again he tried to invite me for a drink with him and “his boss,” but I wasn’t about to fall for that and just had him bring me to the hotel in the Taj Mahal area.  It was dark by that time and the streets were lit up for the people to walk around — except for the half hour blackout that made everything go dark.  For dinner I went to the Shankara Vegis restaurant (for obvious reasons to the Indiana Jones fan), a place with the best lassis I’d had in India so far (with chunks of coconut!) and a really good special thali, or Indian buffet, of different spicy stews and bread served on a silver platter. 

There weren’t many other travelers to chat with so I chat with friend and Blogreader Rozzie on-line, the only one on AOL Instant Messenger on a Sunday morning back on the North American seaboard that I knew.  I told her about how I had become part of the scammer side of things instead of being the scammee, but she pointed out that unless Nati split the commissions with me, I was just used to get money and therefore, scammed even more.  Oh yeah, I never thought of it that way.  I was just excited that I was in the loop.

Point taken, I told her.  And so, just like many a time leaving the Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, I came away not as a big winner after all — but least there was a pretty good buffet.






Next entry: Jaipur Introduction

Previous entry: Gandhi Park




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Comments for “Playing The Game”

  • First!?!?!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  03:06 AM


  • Here’s another for ya… 

    I’ll make sure to take another picture of the hole in my leg for all you Holy Leg fans out there soon enough…

    NOW GET OUT THERE AND VOTE!!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  03:10 AM


  • Awesome… the pics are great.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  03:11 AM


  • Okay, so there are the 6 pointed stars all over the place - what significance do they hold in India? Do you know??

    Such beautiful pics - thanks…

    YES - VOTE EVERYONE!!! As P.Diddy says: Vote or Die!

    And, if anyone sees or hears of any intimidation, report it - it is important!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  03:23 AM


  • “Vote or Die!” 

    yikes

    I wouldn’t go that far…...........

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  03:25 AM


  • Erik,

    Now I’m jealous - your Taj pictures are beautiful!  When I was there, the pollution was so bad you could not see the Taj from the fort and everything was grey.

    Looks like you found a good solution for all the “shopping” with Nati.  I didn’t mind it too much in Agra, though, because some of the places we went to were almost like museums, but ones where you can touch and buy things.  I got to try on emeralds that once “belonged” to a maharani.  Even if that wasn’t true, the emeralds were HUGE. 

    Enjoy India,

    Meg

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  03:47 AM


  • I can’t wait to see the Taj - the pictures look beautiful. 
    Erik - what are your impressions of India?  Good, bad, neutral?  It is the weeding out destination in AR wink
    Speaking of which, 2 weeks until season 6 starts!!

    Posted by Liz  on  11/01  at  05:00 AM


  • is the hole closing up any? it honestly didn’t look to good being opened up like that. i keep thinking there should be stitches there.

    Posted by Alyson  on  11/01  at  06:15 AM


  • Bill - I just have been reading the BOONDOCKS comic and there’s been a theme about that - it’s more funny than anything else to me. And the fact that P.Diddy brought it all about pretty much cracks me up…

    It IS a dire situation, though. smile

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  06:39 AM


  • NOELLE:  So you want me to get all Robert Langdon here, huh?

    The six-pointed star is a universal symbol with different meanings in different religions and sects.  The obvious one is the Star of David in Judaism, and of course, the perfect and necessary union of the male and female triangles (as learned in “The DaVinci Code”). 

    In India the six-pointed star is a symbol of Shiva, more specifically the “cosmic dance” of Lord Shiva and the goddess Shakti (also known as Kali of Indiana Jones fame).  “Cosmic dance” is in quotes because that really implies intercourse, one of the ways of achieving tantra, or the blissful connection of the spirit with the body.

    To conclude, it’s yet another symbol for sex.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  10:35 AM


  • LIZ:  re: India impressions.  I don’t know what all the warnings were about from backpackers saying it was really hard to deal with it here; it’s actually not that bad.  Perhaps it’s because I’m really jaded with the whole developing nation thing that poverty and pollution don’t really culture shock me anymore; I’m way beyond thinking it’s strange to see barnyard animals walk through oncoming traffic or people shitting in the streets.

    So far, India is neutral, leaning towards good—it’s only been five days so far—although that might also be due to the fact that I’m not hounded down by touts and beggars as nearly as many times as the average white person.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  10:40 AM


  • ALYSON:  It’s healing from the bottom up, slowly but surely.  In the meantime I’ve been spackling the hole with povidone iodine ointment.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  10:42 AM


  • Yes!  I just dodged death by voting!!

    Take that P Diddy…

    shankara, shankara….fortune and glory, kid…fortune and glory….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  11:04 AM


  • Glad you’re enjoying your stay in India (and not getting scammed)  =)  Can’t wait to see pics of Bollywood - we never made it there.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  01:32 PM


  • Same thing happened to me in Bangkok. I knew what my Tuk-tuk was up to, I wasn’t playing along until he cut the crap and leveled with me. Then I didn’t mind browsing in a few stores.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  01:53 PM


  • love the story, and good point that you should get some of the cut. also love the pictures, it does look amazing everytime some one come back from there. Hope your leg is feeing better!

    N smile

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  02:25 PM


  • i think people in general don’t like being lied to. if the drivers come out and honestly say their intentions, i am sure most tourists don’t mind browsing around the stores just to help out a hard worker. and as for the “vote or die”, what the hell is that supposed to mean. think about it. it makes no sense. “vote or be unheard” makes sense. or “vote or not be represented”. unless people who don’t vote today just suddenly drop dead, i don’t think that slogan is a very good one. if they are talking about the draft, voting isn’t necessarily going to put a stop to that, especially if you voted and bush still wins. i think p. diddy just wanted a catchy shock slogan and a chance to use any word that means harsh and “ghetto”. makes him seem hip or something.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  02:45 PM


  • dude, Whata a hole! ... You know between the the “Giant Douche” & “Turd Sandwich”,  I just don’t know ...

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  02:55 PM


  • yeah, well you know, even though giant douche won by a landslide, your vote doesn’t count anyways. =P

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  03:19 PM


  • Wowza - who knew I would start such a firestorm quoting PDiddy… I just thought it was funny…

    Anyway, thanks for getting all Robert Langdon on me - that’s awesome… thanks.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  04:06 PM


  • I just waited in line for an hour to vote for a Giant Douche.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  05:08 PM


  • voted at 620 am est… in and out baby….

    no lines for the early birds…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  05:14 PM


  • E:  I’m very glad you will go to Pankot Palace…

    For the NYC Blog Hogs and SBRs… IF you voted…  (Found this in a hot deals forum… but its from Today’s Gossip section of the NY POST)

    PORN director Seymore Butts ? star of Showtime’s reality series “Family Business” ? is giving away dirty DVDs to anyone who shows up at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square tonight with proof of having voted. “We’d like them to vote for Kerry, but if they voted for Bush and come to get a free Seymore DVD . . . well, that’s a little telling, isn’t it?” he says. Butts and porn starlet Mari Possa will distribute DVDs to randy voters beginning at 6:30 p.m.

    (The URL is linked on my name)

    Posted by Duaine  on  11/01  at  07:56 PM


  • That’s FANTASTIC!! And Highly amusing…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  09:56 PM


  • niice….

    If you listened to Stern this morning, there is a hooker out near Carson City that will be servicing the first 25 Kerry voters…...

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/01  at  10:16 PM


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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today, RickSteves.com, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.


Next entry:
Jaipur Introduction

Previous entry:
Gandhi Park




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