Return Of The Touts


This blog entry about the events of Saturday, November 13, 2004 was originally posted on November 19, 2004.

DAY 392:  It was Sunday, the one day weekend for Chrissy at the NGO she worked for since they expected her to work with the reset of them on Saturdays.  (This she would complain about because she was already working ten-hour days, and voluntarily for free, too.)  Taking advantage of the one day off, we decided to venture outside the city limits with Koco to the main tourist sites.  Translation:  we decided to leave the security of Kenneth and Geeta’s Chennai guesthouse to be open prey for scammers and touts.

After an Indian breakfast of the southeastern delicacy dosais (Indian pancakes served with a variety of sauces), we hoped in the white classic Ambassador we hired for the day.  At the wheel was Sehtu, a very friendly driver who worked with the Tom and Koco’s NGO.

Our first stop, Kanchipuram, was about three hours away through the tropical landscape, home of three main temples of the southern Pallava architecture style indigenous to the region.  The first was the Arulmigu Devarajaswamy Temple, dedicated to Hindu Lord Vishnu.  There was a sign in front in plain English that showed us the fees expected:  one rupee for admission and five for still camera permission.  We paid the fees to the local pandit with the marking of Vishnu adorned on his forehead (picture above).  He guided us on an informal tour of the only temple in the multi-edifice complex open to visitors, from the statues of the different deities, the sacred pool in the back, the wedding altar and the intricately carved out columns — some of which were made of hollow granite that made sounds in different pitches depending where you tapped on.  His presentation was fast and sort of rushed, but we just nodded our heads in acknowledgment. 

We didn’t realize that at the end that the whole tour was done for a donation (silly us).  The pandit held out his hand for some money, but made a face when we only gave him coins.  He left us with a dirty look so that we could take photos.  “I feel like I know nothing about this temple,” Chrissy told me.  “When it was built, how old it is…  I need my pamphlet.”

“Well, it’s old, it’s made of granite and some of it is hollow,” I said.

“So you can make steel drum noises.”

“Yes, it’s actually a Caribbean temple.”

THE TOUTS AND THE GUYS LOOKING FOR “DONATIONS” continued when Sehtu brought us to the Sri Ekanbaranathar Temple, a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva.  The scams started even before we reached the main temple area.  Two old women came to us, each with plates of puffed rice krispies, the auspicious offering to Hindu deities for good fortune.  One woman followed Koco while the other targeted me.  She stuffed some rice krispies in my hand and grabbed me by the wrist.  “Wait, where are we going?”  I played along, curious to where she’d lead me — Koco and Chrissy got a kick out of it because they saw I really had no escape.

The old woman walked me over to a statue of Shiva with a metal offertory plate in front and she had me spill the rice in.  Then she grabbed me by the wrist with one hand while holding plates of rice krispies in the other and walked me over to a carved relief about 50 ft. away, all the time chanting “good luck, good luck” in such a fast fashion that it was more like “goodluckgoodluckgoodluck…”  It was then it was more obvious to me that I had fallen into a scam; she was declaring what I was getting, so that I had to reciprocate monetarily.  Meanwhile, Koco was getting the spiel from her old woman that giving the offerings to Shiva would bring her “good husband” amongst other things. 

I was taken to the relief for the sprinkling of rice krispies.  The old female tout continued her “goodlucks”, touching the stone and then blessing me.  Then, (sarcastic drumroll here), she held her hand out for a “donation.”

“Only if I can take a picture.”

“Donation first.”

“Okay.”  I gave her a ten rupee note.

“No, not ten, one hundred.”

“No, no.  I only want to give ten.”

“But it’s one hundred rupees,” she said, giving me back the ten.

Doesn’t she understand the concept of a donation?  “No, I’m only giving ten,” I said.  “If you don’t want it, fine.” 

She started getting pissed.  “One hundred rupees.  Donation!  This is for your good luck!  Shiva!”  A small crowd developed and I realized it was the usual gang-up-on-the-tourist deal.

“I only want to give ten.  It’s a donation.”

“No.  More.”  She pointed to my pocket as if she knew there was money inside.

“It is one hundred rupees donation,” one man interjected.

“I don’t have a hundred.”

The woman pointed to my pocket again.  I emptied it and there was some ticket stubs and twenty rupees.  “There.”  I gave her the twenty.

“No, no!  One hundred!”

“That’s all I have.”

“[I have] change for five hundred,” another woman in the crowd said.  The first woman played the angry bit some more but I just walked off and rejoined the girls.  Koco said the trick to get rid of the touts was to simply turn away, and have them “talk to the hand.”  Chrissy, who had tried to get ride of an incessantly begging girl amidst the rice krispie affair, asked us, “Is it okay to shove little children?”

ANOTHER PUNDIT APPROACHED US in the temple complex — most of which was under scaffolding except for one temple in the back — and he too was eager to show us around.

“No, it’s okay,” I told him.

“But I am a priest.  I can show you around.”

“Yes, I know.  That’s okay.  We’re fine.”

“There,” he pointed.  It was a sign by the entry into the temple asking for donations for entry inside.

“No, it’s okay.”

“But it’s Shiva!”

We gave him the hand and walked away.

“ALL THE TEMPLES LOOK THE SAME, just the history is different.  But you can read that in the books,” our wise driver Sehtu said.  We went to the third major temple in the area anyway, the less-frequented Kailasanatha Temple, not dedicated to any deity in particular, which was probably why it wasn’t so heavy with touts.  (Either that or the touts were distracted by the big French tour group being led around, all while they all wore cloth booties on their feet to cheat the bare foot rule.)  We wandered the little temple area with little sacred stones near the entrance pretty much hassle-free, which made us happy.

Happiness continued when we had Sehtu take us to Mahabalipuram, a laid back seaside town a couple hours drive away, the home of Moonraker’s, a local institution run by three Indian brothers known for its seafood and Western blues music.  The middle brother Vivek showed off their fresh catch of tiger prawns (the size of small bananas!) and I had them cooked up with tomato and onion with a side of Kingfisher beer.

The last page of the menu was not for food but for massage services provided by the brothers’ friend next door.  Koco and Chrissy partook in his services and were quite pleased (despite the questionable sanitary conditions of his parlor).  Meanwhile, I had an internet session.

WHILE KOCO WENT SHOPPING, Sehtu took Chrissy and I to the nearby touristy sites by the shore:  the Shore Temple, built in the 8th century A.D. by Pallava King Rajasimha, appropriately nicknamed for its proximity to the shore; and the Five Rathas, built in the 7th century A.D. by Pallava King Mamalla, appropriately named because they were (one two three four) five of them.  The latter was a collection of monolithic temples carved out of boulders, with some animal sculptures outside such as sacred cows and elephants.  To our extended happiness, both sites were gated and required a small fee, which kept out the touts and hassles.

The return of the touts came when we walked along the strip lines with stone carver shops, which produced not only local Hindu statues but others for the global market.  Chrissy and I walked over the big park with the lighthouse nearby where the main rathas of Mahabalipuram were carved out of rocks alongside really impressive stone reliefs.  It was a popular places for foreign and Indian tourists albeit goats, monkeys and more monkeys

Touts approached us with boxes of little stone sculptures (translation:  paperweights sans the green felt on the bottom), each calling out “Ten rupees!  Ten rupees!” but we gave them the hand.  Touts frequented the streets preyin on anyone that looked like a tourist. 

“...Twenty dollars,” we heard one of them tell a couple of Japanese(?) girls.

“Nothing costs twenty dollars around here,” I told Chrissy.

While waiting for Koco to negotiate a fair price on a sculpture of goddess Lakshmi — she did this by inventing a husband that she had to consult before making a big purchase, something Indian salesmen completely understood — I went to get a fresh coconut from one of the many vendors on the street.

“How much?” I asked an old woman. 

“One rupee.”


She chopped off the top, put in a straw and handed it to me.  I gave her a ten rupee note, the smallest denomination I had on me and waited for change.

“It’s ten.”

“You said one rupee.”

“No, ten.”

“Forget it.  I don’t want it then.”  She wouldn’t take it back or return my money. 

“You said it was one rupee!” I pleaded.

“No, it’s ten.  That’s the price for Indians!”

“No, you said one.  One rupee.”

“It’s two for twenty,” one guy interjected.  Again with the team up.

“Two for twenty.  That’s ten for one,” the woman said.

“I’d be happy to pay ten if you said ‘ten’ in the beginning, but you said ‘one.’”  She wasn’t budging and I left it alone.  Whatever, bitch.  Why bother arguing over the matter of 17 American cents?

“THOSE PLACES ARE A FRAUD!” Geeta, the mother of the guesthousehold said to us at the communal dining table that night at dinner back in Chennai.  Koco, Chrissy and I entertained the rest of the table with our stories of the day, the rice krispie affair, the donation-hungry pandits and Koco’s clever invention of a husband, which used Indian macho social values to her advantage.  Geeta was really vocal about her distaste for the touristy temples; she had one showed a Japanese guest to the same sites and was hassled, even though she was a local and a Hindu no less. 

“Nothing is written [in Hinduism] that says foreigners are not allowed.  The temples are open to everyone.”

With that said, perhaps we had been had more than we thought, but were glad we were back in the comfort of a home, a home away from touts and ten-rupee coconuts.  Er, I mean one-rupee coconuts.

Next entry: Female Condomania

Previous entry: Family to Family

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Comments for “Return Of The Touts”

  • darn the touts!  nothing really exciting to say but i thought i’d follow the crowd and strive to be the first to comment… :-D

    Posted by cayce  on  11/19  at  12:59 PM

  • 8-) Actually coconuts are 10 per coconut [for indians also].

    They are costlier in Bangalore and in Mumbai !

    But I know you sure had your fair share of scams, especially for showing you aroung the temple.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/19  at  01:56 PM

  • Are the shore temples made of sandstone? THey look super neato.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/19  at  03:37 PM

  • Erik: “temple area” pic opens up in landscape, should be portrait.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/19  at  04:16 PM

  • The vegitation coved Edifice is beautiful. To bad all the touts spoil such a nice place.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/20  at  12:26 AM

  • touts!  it’s more than alright to shove little kids…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/20  at  10:01 PM

  • Still catching up. Eek it’s slow going at home with my Lame-O dial-up. Ugh. These comments wouldn’t post on their days. Curses, foiled again!

    Holiday for Pyros: Had to laugh at myself when you had a link named “an elephant was blessing passers-by for a donation. ” I expected a guy dressed in an elephant suit next to a bucket jingling a bell like the Salvation Army Santas here. Next thing I knew I was looking at an *actual elephant*. Too funny.

    Hindu for a Day: Extremely cool for you to experience a joyous and family-oriented holiday of another religion, adopted into the event. That’s something few get a chance to do, and thanks for sharing it all with us.

    Love today’s pics. You’re all smiles with your NYC bud. I’ve got cousins like that too. One’s in New Zealand. Are you heading that way?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/03  at  09:27 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 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.

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