I’ve been living in India for more than six weeks now. It doesn’t feel like anywhere near that long! Although the vast majority of people have been lovely and welcoming, there have been a few times, particularly out in the city, where I’ve been really ticked off by people’s attitudes to me. Especially as a young woman travelling alone, it’s important to be aware of possible scams and avoid being taken in by people waiting to exploit your ignorance of local behaviours.
It’s my first experience of being an ethnic minority; I’m starting to appreciate the discomfort which many immigrants to the UK must feel; especially in the not-particularly-diverse South West of England, where I live. Although the nearby tourist spots of Rishikesh, Haridwar and Mussoorie are full of foreigners, I’ve yet to see another white person in the local area. I stand out everywhere.
Clearly, I have it remarkably easy. I’m living in a safe place, and the exchange rate from GBP to Indian Rupees is extremely favourable. I’m by no means rich, but the assumption is that all foreigners are. And we are, comparatively. Coming to India from the West puts you in a very good position in terms of expenditure, but that doesn’t mean you should let the scams slide! Some things are just downright annoying.
Firstly; by nature of the fact that I’m white and CLEARLY not a local, whenever any shop-owner in the market sees me approach, their thought process probably goes something like this…
“Hmm… White girl… Probably has a lot of money, foreigners always do… *puts prices up by at least 100%* She probably won’t know any better, or know how to haggle…”
Thankfully, I did know about this attitude before I arrived, and I’ve been told about it countless times, so I knew what to expect. I used to absolutely despise haggling; a few years ago, in Tunisia, I was mortified when my mother spent so long debating prices in the souks. A couple of years later, when I went to Morocco, it turned out I was quite good at it. So, I won’t really let the shop keepers get away with this one.
The key is to look confident; and just walk away if they’re not budging, because I can guarantee that you can get just the same thing for a bit cheaper not even 100m further down the road! However, often, I just can’t be bothered with it. Because everything is so cheap anyway, it’s a lot of effort to haggle for the equivalent of twenty pence on some fruit. But it is expected, and I don’t want people to think that just because I’m a foreigner, I’m incapable of negotiating a price.
This is helped a bit by the fact that a lot of fruit sellers and people selling drinks in the road have something of a standard price, purely because there are so many of them competing. However, the stubbornness of some people is incredible. I bought some apples for 100Rs (just over £1), and when I got home, was told an Indian would only have paid half of that. I suppose I need to try harder…
When I was in Mussoorie, I came across a completely ridiculous scam by some taxi drivers which can be easily avoided if you a) are patient and persistent, or b) have some forewarning or prior knowledge of the place. I had read a bit about the place on travel sites and Wikipedia, and when I came across this, I knew there had to be a better option.
There’s a place called Kempty Falls – a set of waterfalls and bathing pools – further down from Mussoorie in the hills, probably about 15km; a half hour long drive. When you reach the main square at the Library end of the Mall, a long ring road which is the main way of getting around Mussoorie, it’s only a little further until you reach a row of taxis offering to take you there.
The catch? They’re offering to take you therefor 2000 Rs! This is only about £23, but still, for what things normally cost in India, it’s excessive. Upon inquiry, the taxi drivers then tell you that there is no bus or alternate form of transport which can get you to Kempty Falls, and so less knowledgeable tourists often pay these extortionate amounts. Tourists are definitely easy prey for anyone working in a popular city; that’s true of anywhere in the world!
However, they’ll be kicking themselves about five minutes later, when the taxi goes around a bend and they see the multitudes of jeeps and tourist buses going to the same place! When I was there, I thought it would be a good idea to walk a bit further than the taxi rank, and lo-and-behold, there was a jeep willing to take us to the Falls for 60 Rs per head! So it’s definitely worth that extra ten minutes of walking! If that, to be honest… I find it unbelievable that the taxi drivers get away with this!
Admittedly, that jeep ride was something of a hair-raising experience as we hurtled along the winding road with a risk of toppling right off the edge and further down into the valley, but hey, at least it was cheap! And I can’t imagine a taxi or bus would be any better, knowing the traffic and driving habits of people in India!
It’s a similar situation with rickshaws and vikrams. The first week I was in Dehradun, I went to see a temple about a twenty minute vikram ride away. If you don’t know, a vikram is like a tuk-tuk; three wheels, rickety, and fits about nine people plus the driver (it’s a squeeze though)!
They’re extraordinarily cheap, but will rip you off at the first opportunity. I was forewarned that my journey back from the temple ought to cost about 10 Rs, and so when the driver asked me for 30 Rs when I got to my stop, I shook my head firmly and gave him ten!
The best strategy for this is to know roughly how much it should be, and just give them the money without asking the price. If you’re not familiar with the area or country, you should watch for how much people are paying at the stops just before yours, and judge it by that.
Another thing which irritates me a lot is men’s attitudes. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great guys in India and most of the men I’ve actually spoken to have been fine. But the constant staring seems more than what is focused on Indian women. Of course, a foreigner is a curiosity to people, but really, is that any need for the drawn out staring? I don’t think so. These men are used to Indian women not calling them out on these things, but I’ve never been one to take that kind of thing lying down, and won’t hesitate to shout at someone and ask what their problem is when I think someone’s being impertinent.
Usually I try to brush it off; you can’t challenge everyone… But seriously! When I was in Rishikesh, a group of guys came up to me when I was sitting by the river, and asked to take a photo with me. No context. I pretty much told them where to get off. It’s happened a few times, and I’m sure usually it’s just because I’m a novelty here, but it’s still a bit uncomfortable.
To finish with, I’d add on another note that being foreign often does mean that you get special treatment and that people go out of their way to be nice to you. This is especially true sometimes if you’re a young woman alone. Some people, especially women, take it upon themselves to make sure you’re okay. The majority of people are very kind. And I’ve found that often, people do go out of their way to make a foreigner happy. I’m not necessarily saying that this is the best attitude, but it does happen.
For instance, when I went to a coffee shop in one of the local malls, and my currency card didn’t work because of a fault in their system, I got another free drink out of it. When I told Shruti, she said; “Indian people never get free stuff. Everyone’s so nice to you.” I suppose it’s true. The neighbours invited me to their house and always ask after me. Shopkeepers and assistants always ask me if I want any help (and annoyingly, often tend to follow me around the shop… Stop that.)
The benefits of being from a Western country where I have the means to travel and choose what I want to do far outweigh any minor annoyances I face as a foreigner in the places I travel to. And it’s probably a good reminder too. It tells us something.
“This is not your culture. You are a guest here.” And we should behave accordingly.