Touts

As Daniela’s sisters are visiting and we have travelled around quite a bit in the past couple of weeks. I am constantly reminded of a word that I quickly learned when we first got to India.

Tout

A tout would be called a solicitor in America (and what is called a lawyer in America is called a solicitor in the UK). You find these people wherever there are tourists or pilgrims; which are a form of domestic tourist here in India. They generally come in three flavors:

The Solicitor – This type of tout is usually has some knickknack or service that he (nearly always a he; rarely a she) is trying to sell. The service may be taxi or guide services if it is a tourist spot. The knickknack will often be some low budget, completely useless item that has nothing to do with the theme of the place; cheap sunglasses, cheap wooden flutes, little drums, toys, etc. Sometimes, the knickknack is something actually useful, such as fruits or jaggery. Their natural habitat is major intersections and bus stands. They’ll walk along the busses or from car to car hawking their wares. The solicitor is the least annoying form of tout and is sometimes even welcome, such as when they are offering mangoes and cucumbers to occupants of busses stopped at stands, or cars at traffic lights. There is a little girl that haunts a railroad crossing on the road between Krishnagiri and Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. She is the only source that I know of for brown jaggery, a lightly refined form of brown sugar.

The solicitor will move on if you are not interested in what they have to sell.

The Barnacle – The barnacle is a variant of the solicitor that haunts tourist places and pilgrimage sites. Unlike the solicitor, the barnacle nearly never has anything that you would actually want. No mangoes, no cucumbers and no jaggery. Instead, they have low quality knickknacks and postcards. Once they have pinned you as a potential customer, they never leave; much like a barnacle clings to a ship. No amount of the word “no” will deter them.

Sometimes you can get several barnacles at a time, all selling the same exact thing. Once you have made the mistake of being polite to them, getting the crowd to go away is nearly impossible.

A pack of rare female barnacles

A pack of rare female barnacles

The Insidious Bastard – This is by far the most annoying sort of tout. They try the friendly approach where they just cling to you and socialize; at least at first. Ostensibly, they are being “helpful” and “friendly”. Since they might actually be someone who is just friendly and curious about the foreigners, you are reluctant to tell them to get lost. Somewhere along the line, they will ask for money of course. If they can actually provide a service that you are willing to pay for, then fine. Usually, they are just leeches that lower your enjoyment of the time/place, actually know less about the history of a place than you do if you did your homework and will later demand an outsized payment (at least from foreigners) for “guide services”.

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Charlotte’s Epiphany

Something happened a few weeks ago that I’d planned to blog about, but it slipped my mind. So now I’m playing catch up.

Charlotte confided to me that she was not happy about going back to Germany and that she wanted to stay at Inventure Academy. Now anyone who followed the early posts of this blog might recall that she was the reticent one about coming to India in the first place and was the one who had the roughest initial adjustment the first few days. Now obviously her friend Freya is a factor. Freya is Charlotte’s first really good, close friend. Charlotte is outgoing and charismatic (two traits that certainly did not inherit from her father) and has lots of friends, but she’ll be the first to tell you that they are acquaintances and not real friends the way Freya is.

But there was something else…

There was a girl in her class back in Germany who had gone to kindergarten and first grade with Charlotte. This girl was from a German family, but was adopted as an orphaned toddler from Columbia.

This girl had brown skin.

She was socially ostracized and mistreated by her peers. Charlotte told me that the problem that the other kids had with her was the color of her skin, plain and simple. First graders have not yet learned the art of disguising bigotry with pretexts and justifications. Charlotte told me that they said to her that this is what the problem with her was. Meanwhile, her experience here was completely different. Her school is about 10% expat and light skinned kids are certainly in the minority here, yet she never experienced a single feeling of “otherness”. She made comparisons of the moral fiber of the kids at Inventure and back at Schloßberschule in Rotenberg and it was very much not in favor of Rotenberg. At the tender age of eight, she has already formed her own opinions of provincial bigotry and the people who practice it.

I wonder how much of it is India and how much of it is the international school environment. I know it can’t entirely be the former as the girl who comes for drinking water once thought our driver was Muslim because she did not recognize his name as a Hindu one. It was only after he told her that he was Christian that she became friendly with him and told him that she would not talk to him if he was Muslim.

Nevertheless, Charlotte has grown a lot in this year. Her father is proud of her. I did not learn those lessons until much later.

Welcome to Sandalwood

I’ve always felt like an anthropologist when watching Bollywood films. Mass market films inadvertently tell you a lot about the culture that they originate from. The latest one was similar. Except this was a Sandalwood film. Sandalwood is a term for the Kannada language film industry while Bollywood is synonymous with Hindi. I’d never seen a Kannada movie before and was dying to actually see one. Our driver’s wife works as an extra broker for Kannada and Tamil language filmmakers (and even tried to recruit Sammy as an extra for a shoot once) and I’ve long wanted to watch one. The problem is that they never translate them. They don’t even put subtitles onto the DVDs. Somehow this fits the curious habit that South Indians have of remaking the entire film in other languages, rather than dubbing them or adding subtitles.

So a few weeks ago, I came across a DVD of Mungaru Male, complete with English subtitles. It took weeks to convince Daniela to actually sit down and watch it. She has an inherent mistrust of any Indian film not recommended by Siva. This mistrust is not unfounded as most Hindi films range from godawful to merely not very good and even most of the relatively good ones share the same basic plot layout as the bad ones. To top it off, most Indian films have pointless song and dance scenes that feel like they were spliced in with duct tape; song and dance scenes that get conveniently repackaged as music videos and become the mainstays of pop music. Now there are also genuinely excellent Bollywood films; Being Cyrus and Chak De!, which has joined my pantheon of favorite films. But Chak De! is that rare example of mass market Hindi film (Being Cyrus is English) that does not have a single dance scene.

Eventually I was able to convince her to watch it. After all, Mungaru Male is one of the most famous Kannada films, its outdoor cinematography is supposed to be exceptional and it comes with the bit of trivia that a scene at Jog Falls – one of the highest single drop waterfalls in Asia – has inspired copycat fools to fall to their deaths. Siva, who was over for the weekend and had never seen a Kannada film before, watched it with us.

It was horrible! It combined the worst instincts of a Hindi “romance” with horrible 60’s style indoor cinematography, cheesy fight scenes that derived inspiration from old tradition poorly dubbed, badly acted Kung Fu movies and yet had enchanting outdoor fimography. It felt like a YouTube mashup created by a deranged twelve year old. The hero not only stalked the heroine, but he acted juvenile to boot! The only redeeming feature was that we recognized the places in the Bangalore scenes. Dani only survived half the film and left. Siva had her own opinions:

I wouldn’t even watch a movie like this in Tamil!

(She is a Tamil)

Only Charlotte was glued to the plot.

I need to find more Kannada films with English subtitles. It was so delightfully bad that it was great!

Camera Shopping

Daniela and I agreed that the picture quality from our digital camera (a Casio Exilim) was not the greatest quality. Pictures were often very blurry, or heavily pixilated. The camera was nominally an 8 megapixel one, but the pictures were of lower quality than the 2 megapixel Mikon Coolpix 800 that it replaced. I managed to convince her that a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera was a good thing (I myself needed no convincing) and we decided that we’d rather get it sooner, rather than later as there are only a few months left of our India time and India is a very photogenic country.

I went camera shopping.

Now if you are camera shopping in Bangalore, there are the chain stores such as GK Vale – where you can buy a camera – and then there are the professional stores – which amount to temples dedicated to photography. There are two professional stores in town. Together, they service this part of Karnataka and all of the local pros call the shops by the names of the proprietors; not by the store names. The first is essentially a streetside kiosk with a storeroom. A chaotic group of well dressed men stand in front of it and shout orders. Only instead of ordering samosas (a fried dumpling, often sold by street vendors), they are ordering half lakh ($1000) cameras and parts. The other is a quiet shop on a busy street. It is quiet only in comparison to its competitor a few blocks away. Packed into every bit of available display space is tens of thousands of dollars worth of professional grade camera equipment; bodies, lenses, filters, bags, tripods, you name it. Whenever you go in, there is always someone trying out a gigantic lens to add to his lens collection, or trying out a monopod for supporting the gigantic lens that he recently bought. The proprietor is extremely helpful and brimming with advice.

But there is something else about both places. When you ask for a quote on a piece of equipment, you get two prices. You get one price and another (considerably higher one) if you want a receipt. One of the proprietors explained to me that 80% of all DSLR equipment sold in India is grey market.

The first interesting thing is that 80% of the camera equipment market is grey (or even black, what Americans refer to as “under the table”). This is an unfortunate side effect of many “socially oriented” tax and tariff policies; that the higher they are, the more of the economy is driven under the table. This has the twin effects of bringing in less revenue comes in to pay for those policies and turning increasingly large segments of the public into scofflaws and weakening respect for the law. The second interesting thing was that both shops were so open about the dual pricing policy. These gentlemen are not opening trench coats and saying “pssst… want to buy a camera?” or laying out towels with cameras that they can swoop up and run off with if a policeman comes along. They are stand up businessmen and the go-to people for the professional photography community; yet feel comfortable brazenly selling grey market camera parts.

This says so many things about both the economy and the government.

The Facilitation Fee

A friend of ours recently went through a court case. At the courthouse, she was told by her lawyer’s legal assistant that she should give 50 rupees to this man to carry her case from one stack to another, 100 to another to put it near the top of the stack, etc. She paid 250 RS in bribe money to have her case processed quickly. She was telling this story to another family friend, the father of Charlotte’s best friend. He also happens to be an IP lawyer.

He turned to her and smiled:

We don’t call that bribery. We call it a facilitation fee.

The case backlog is so long that by insisting on honesty and not paying the bribe, you would be condemming your case to purgatory for all time. You can either be ethically correct, or you can get things done it seems.

A tale of two cities – part 2 (the Troy of the East)

Take a look at this photograph.

Krishnagiri Fort at Gingee

Krishnagiri Fort at Gingee

See those imposing walls? That massive, two mile long, curtain wall is still complete and still mostly in good condition, not having been torn apart for building materials, succumbed to developmental stress as in European cities or having been perforated by “heritage hotels” as was the fate of the fort in Jaiselmer. That moat is 80 feet across. Once upon a time, it was home to numerous crocodiles and snakes to ward off attackers. It is probably still home to many snakes. Places like this are where the stereotype of a crocodile infested moat come from. See the fort up on the rocky hill? That is Krishnagiri; the queen’s fort. Rajagiri (the king’s fort) and a third fort, called Chamar Tikri, are on a hill a kilometer to the left and behind the camera respectively.

Welcome to Gingee!

The fortress complex at Gingee was originaly built in the 9th century and considerably upgraded in the 13th century. It was self sustaining. In the 17th century, the invading Mughals required a seven year siege in order to capture the fort. Father Pinments, British visitor in the 18th century, called it the “Troy of the East”. One can easily spend a full day here and not see everything.

What don’t you see in that picture? People!

Strangely enough, while Mahabalipuram, two hours away, is mobbed with tourists, Gingee, despite its scenic delights and colorful history; is empty. That is something that I’ll never understand about this country.

Temple Gopura

Temple Gopura

Cave Temple

Cave Temple

A tale of two cities – part I (the tourist trap)

Mahabalipuram is an old temple town on the shores of the Indian Ocean, south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu. It’s ancient shore temple is famous for being the first of its architectural type; an architectural format that was widely exported around southeast Asia. It is a beautiful temple. Mahabalipuram also has a fascinating park in the center of town, with rock carvings, cave temples and oddly enough, a giant rock that reminds me of a glacial erratic (giant boulder in a place where it should not be. Usually carried by ice sheets during an ice age). Siva tells me that the carving of the descent of the Ganges (see below) were in one of her history books in school. The rock is a common feature of travel guides. This puzzles me. It is an interesting rock, but there are a lot of really cool things in south India and Tamil Nadu specifically that are much more interesting and photogenic. How about the temples at Tiruvannamalai or Maduri, with their magnificient gopuras? Then again, you see few western tourists in Tiruvannamalai and the few westerners that you do see are there doing the spiritual/ashram thing. So it is not surprising to see no Tiruvannamalai photos in Lonely Planet.

You see many more western tourists in Pondicherry… oh and in Mahabalipuram. The place was an absolute madhouse. We were there with half of France and all of Chennai it seems. It is a holiday week in France. This coincided with a long weekend in south India and an early summer heatwave (yes Virginia, summer has already begun here even though it is only February). There were an oppressive number of tourists. To make matters worse, the touts and beggars were as bad as anything I’ve seen in the tourist traps of Jaipur.

We spent all of three hours in town before we had to retreat back to the quiet of the countryside. It was a pity as without the people, it probably would have been a day well spent wandering about and contemplating history. Perhaps we’ll go again. On a weekday next time!

Shore Temple

Shore Temple

Shore Temple

Cave Temple

Shore Temple

Descent of the Ganges

Shore Temple

The Famous Rock