Dangers and Annoyances. So reads the heading of the Lonely Planet section that describes troubles you may face in your destination. Of course, in most of Asia, the risk of physical violence is small, but there are still risks, and perhaps no more so than in India. As any tourist to India can tell you, the risk of petty theft and cons is extremely high, leading one to be in a relatively high state of alert. The railways have signs warning you not to take food from strangers due to the risk of drugging (to put you to sleep while you are robbed), you constantly hear stories of other tourists having their bags stolen, and touts and would-be-touts harass you, hoping to make this or that commission off of your hotel or souvenir transaction. Lonely Planet even reported of a scheme in Agra that made you seriously ill in hopes of getting a commission from the local clinic.
South India (so far) has felt super safe, and has been nearly harassment free. Nowhere is perfectly safe, though, and this topic came to me because we experienced the other day a potential con artist. Actually, I think he probably wasn’t (Derek thinks he was), and I feel somewhat guilty for suspecting him, but sometimes it’s better to be safe than sorry, as the saying goes, even if that means to lack faith in your neighbor (at least when you’re carrying everything you hope you will need for the next year in one bag).
On our way from Chettinad, where we were looking at old mansions, to Trichy, a transit hub of Tamil Nadu state, a relatively decently dressed middle-aged man came up to say hello to us at a medium-sized town bus station. Now, this is pretty common in South India–people are extraordinarily friendly and eager to make contact, however small, with foreign tourists. I imagine we’re still a novelty for many of them, since there are so many of them and relatively few of us, and it helps pass the time. We’re generally only too happy to return the greetings, even if answering the same two questions (name and country) fifty times a day gets tiring. This man spoke considerably better English than average, though, and asked a few other questions, also typical ones, and sort of lingered about while Derek took photos of vendors at the bus station. We found this a bit peculiar (if you have something to say to us, or want to talk more to us, go ahead, but don’t just hang around us), but let it go. We decided to go for lunch before we caught our next bus, and headed to a restaurant across the street. A few minutes later, the man entered the restaurant (one of many), and again made meaningless chatter with us (not even friendly, conversational, just meaningless) and generally hung about while we were looking for an empty table. He followed Derek to the handwash station (all Indian restaurants have handwash stations since Indians do not use utensils) and provided useless helpful information such as where the soap is and how to turn on the already running water. My alarm bells rang when we went to sit down and were looking for a place for our big backpacks. He suggested that we put them near a staircase across the busy room.
[Flashback] In our first few days in India in 2003, we took a train from Delhi toward Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, our first Indian train ride. At the New Delhi Railway Station, a relatively decently dressed middle-aged man with pretty good English came by to ask us if we were okay and to be generally helpful. A little too helpful, we thought, for a stranger, but didn’t think anything of it. A bit later, after we were settled, we saw him helping another couple of tourists out. Again, we didn’t think too much of it. We talked to those tourists later to find out that the man, pretending to be helpful, had suggested they move carriages. He involved himself in the process of their moving their bags, and with an accomplice took off with their small backpack (with the more valuable items). The couple had been in India every year for the past ten years or so, in part for business, and it was their first real loss, and a hit to them both materially and to their pride. Because it happened so early in our India trip, and because we were almost the victims, it taught us a valuable lesson: Be wary of the out of place, overly helpful stranger. [I know, standing alone the lesson sounds a little sad.] [End of flashback]
Now, we try never to part with our bags, and to keep them in plain sight. Here, a strange man was suggesting that we put our bags halfway across the room, where crowds would block our line of sight periodically. This man spoke pretty good English but didn’t have anything really to say to us and followed us around, even waiting until a seat at our table opened up. We met him at a bus station (obviously a haven for crooks). Although this city was an unlikely location for such a thief (and so I am inclined to think he was not one), it fit too closely the Delhi pattern, and we kept our bags close by. We finished lunch while we kept an extremely tight awareness of our belongings. Again, sad, I know, this distrust–but sometimes better safe than sorry.
Other scams we’ve faced:
– In New York, up by Columbia where we used to live, there were two people particularly famous for their scams. One would hang out near the ATM, saying that he needed cabfare to go to an AIDS clinic. Innocent liberal college students, particularly drawn by the HIV/AIDS angle, would give him money. Another man acted mentally disturbed and generally deranged, contorting his body, making strange noises and saying that he was hungry (even on dollar Whopper Tuesdays). Of course, other times, he would walk down the street, as healthy and normal as anyone else in New York. One day, when he was putting on his performance, a young student pointed at him and screamed, “He’s a perpetrator–it’s a scam! He’s perfectly fine–I saw him the other day! Perpetrator!” following him down the street, a scene we’ll never forget.
– In Thailand last year, outside a small museum, we ran into a French woman who was acting slightly hysterical. She had a very long story about how her husband had been injured during a robbery and was being held by corrupt policemen in Pattaya and she needed money to give as a bribe to free him, and to get back to Pattaya. We were quite sure that it was a scam, but gave her the benefit of the doubt, asking for any documentation she could provide to confirm her identity–of course she had none. Scams by foreigners are not uncommon in Thailand, which draws a lot of long-term western visitors. Of course, not as common as the “attraction xx is closed, let me take you to attraction yy [and tailors/jewelers/etc.]–only 10 baht” tuk-tuk drivers.
– One of my favorites: In Shenzhen near the Luohu border with Hong Kong, women with little babies sit out on the roads eating rice out of garbage cans. The first time we saw this, we were heartbroken and gave the lady RMB 20 (around $2.50). The second time on the same day we saw this (with another woman, though nearby), we realized that the rice was sitting on a very clean newspaper, at the top of the garbage can, clearly placed by the woman herself. It gave us a good laugh, as we felt that the genuine emotion of heartache that the first display drew within us was well worth RMB 20. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to us earlier that if a person truly needed to take food from the garbage, she’d likely do that, take it from the garbage, rather than sitting on the sidewalk eating directly from the tipped can. A Chinese friend told us that in China they rent babies so that people can go around begging with them!
– Delhi 2003, we were the victim of a classic scam… but this is a long story, and so perhaps I will blog separately later.