Tour of India – Conmen with some polish

Roger Wolens writes about the delights of India – environmental and otherwise

Conmen with some polish

We must give off our own special odour when we first arrive in foreign lands.

No doubt our pallor helps to identify us as new arrivals – immediately showing that we are at our most vulnerable to the quick-buck merchants.

Day One – Delhi City Centre – I thought I was doing rather well in fending off hawkers and souvenir-sellers, but I fell for the sales gimmick of the shoeshine boy.

“Shine your shoes?” he asked as he sidled up.

“No thanks.”

“Dirty. Look,” he persisted; and sure enough there was a splash of what looked like curry all over the toe of one shoe.

“I’ll wipe it. No charge,” he said.

That sounded like a reasonable offer and before I knew it he was on his hands and knees, the shoe was untied and off, the offending splash had been wiped off and he was already applying polish.

Given a couple of days for me to pick up the pester pace of the city, he would not have got away with it. But we are all at our most susceptible to the tricksters and hustlers on the first day and I did not have the resistance at that time.

It’s all part of the tourist game anyway, as far as I am concerned, but he took full advantage.

The existing insoles mysteriously disappeared, to be replaced like lightening with new leather pieces instantly glued into place.

Then the haggling started; but you are not best placed to argue with only one shoe and the risk of the other one disappearing into the crowd, and I ended up a couple of quid out of pocket – as well as learning later that I had fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the book. Hook, line and sinker.

Apparently it is a regular gimmick for shoeshiners to drop globs of mud on clean shoes to drum up custom. And you can get a perfectly good polish for 20p if you really want one.

But not all of local private enterprise is likely to leave a bad taste in the mouth.

At the roadside in every village you will see shack shops. These are no more than 6’x6’ sheds, knocked together from old boxes, and each one offering something different.

I could not resist the temptation to have a cut-throat razor shave in such strange surroundings, complete with audience of local onlookers – all for the grand price of 6p.

They are not all out to rip you off, but haggling is usually part of the sales ritual.

Wherever a tourist bus stops, you will find crowds of locals trying to sell anything from fake marble boxes to peacock feather fans; from whips to quilts, from brass souvenirs to paintings.

The rules of the game are:

1 Show no interest

2 Certainly do not buy anything as you leave coach (they will still be there when you return)

3 If there is anything you fancy, you will invariably get it for less than half the price first mentioned.

4 The easiest ploy is to get back on the coach and haggle through the window. Show them the money, take it or leave it – and you can be sure they will take it as the coach pulls out.

Bartering is not the British way of doing business – but it is the only way in India in those situations.

It is not to be taken seriously. It is just part of the fun, and the vendors enter into the spirit of the occasion wholeheartedly.

When you reflect in a quieter moment, you may suddenly realise that you were arguing over a 10p saving.

You probably would not begrudge them the additional profit (especially when it can buy them a meal!) but it is the game they insist on playing and it is very easy to quickly get lost in the cut and thrust of it allÖ and actually enjoy the battle of wits.