A guidebook whose greatest weakness is that it is overused (though of course there are other significant weaknesses as well), one is sometimes amazed by how authoritative Lonely Planet become. Traveling around the world one often sees hotels, restaurants and stores marketing themselves as having been “recommended by Lonely Planet.” A Lonely Planet listing can corrupt a previously fine business (with rising rates and lower standards) or create a legend out of a roadside stall (e.g., a tiny omelette shop in Jodhpur). Travelers (including ourselves) check its listings to verify the “right” price for an item if in doubt, and rest assured in the face of a corrupt autorickshaw driver that we have paid enough (never mind inflation, rise in price of fuel, etc.). In this post, I want to share two unrelated stories of how “if it’s in Lonely Planet, it must be so.”
The first story is from Jodhpur, India, 2003. We were on our first trip to India, and advised by a fellow American traveler to stay at the Haveli Guest House when in Jodhpur. The room was quaint and the price fair and so we followed his advice. We were in something of a rush that morning, but the hotel attendant seemed keen to show us the rooftop restaurant and give us a map of the town, and so after refusing several times we let him follow through. On the map, he showed us the location of “the government store, Maharaja Arts [not if that was the name],” and let us know that Jodhpur was a great place to shop for souvenirs. Later that day, while sightseeing, we saw that we were near the store, and so decided to stop by.
A bit of background on Indian government stores. In India, most states have a chain of government-owned stores selling local crafts. In Kerala it is called Kairali, in Tamil Nadu Pompuhar. Because it is owned by the government, you have some assurance of quality and authenticity, and the prices are fixed and so there is no need to bargain. You may not get the best price possible for a particular item, but you know that you’re not going to get seriously ripped off, either. All in all, they’re not bad places to shop.
Already well into our Rajasthan travels, I knew that the government stores in Rajasthan went by the name of Rajasthali. But I figured that it was possible for there to be another brand of government store in Jodhpur–and also the Lonely Planet confirmed that Maharaja Arts in Jodhpur was a government store selling at fixed prices.
Walking into the store, which was pretty big and had a decent selection of merchandise, I knew instantly that it was not a government store. Government stores, because they are run by the government, have a certain feel to them. They’re a bit musty, often seem poorly maintained and managed and are overly departmentalized. This store had the feel of a private enterprise and, more tellingly, their sign and receipt book (which I demanded to see) stated clearly that it was a “government authorized” store, which I believe means little more than that they have a business license, although it is supposed to signify reliability.
We asked the lady behind the counter specifically whether this was a government owned store, and she insisted that it in fact was. An outright lie. Derek and I were in a bit of a bad mood that day, and picked a fight with the shopkeepers in the upstairs showroom, asking why they were lying to us and everybody else. [Of course, the answer is clear–by doing so they could charge inflated prices and have customers trustingly not bargain.] After they confessed that they were indeed lying, one explanation: “It is not the fault of your hotel or of the boy on the street that brings people here. It is the fault of the Lonely Planet for listing us as a government store!” (The logic is baffling.) They grew belligerent and told us to leave. The store was crowded with tourists, who at that time seemed like innocent victims to us, “on our side,” and so we made a scene, making clear to all present that the shop was a fraud. The store owner got even angrier, resulting in a slight physical altercation and our departure. [Nothing like a little adrenalin to get a bad mood out of your system.]
Later that day, we ran into other tourists who had visited the store, believing it to be a government store. A couple of them were with the popular Intrepid tour company, showing that even western tour operators (or their local partners) can be trusted in India not to give you false information for commission profit. That night, we chatted with a friend we had made earlier in our trip, a quiet Frenchman who was on our Jaisalmer camel safari. He explained to us that he’d gone shopping and purchased some things that he really liked. Unfortunately, he had followed the hotel’s advice and gone to the “government store.” We explained to him the con, and after some discussion he decided that he was fine with the purchase, even though he probably had overpaid substantially. After dinner, we parted, he to take an early train the next day.
Early the next morning, we awoke to hear the sound of an argument in the hotel lobby–our room was upstairs but the place was small enough that voices carry. The voice was clearly that of our French friend. We went down to see what was the matter. He was explaining to our hotelkeepers that he was upset about their tricking him about the store. We joined the argument and demanded that the hotel give him a refund on the items that he purchased. Since the store wasn’t open, we told the hotel to pay us, and work out the matter with the store directly later. They explained to us their commission scheme and finally agreed to give us a refund (after a great deal of argument).
The second story is from a few days ago, at our Trichy hotel. Not having had access to the internet in a while, I thought that it would be a good idea to check some of my bank/credit card accounts to make sure that everything was in order. Taking advantage of the fact that our room had a phone, I dialed AT&T to make some collect calls. (As you should know, almost all banks and credit cards accept collect calls from a customer, from anywhere.) I made a few different collect calls to check various accounts, and went to sleep.
Upon checking out, I was shocked to discover a hotel phone bill about three times the cost of the room (though still only $50 or so). This was clearly an error–they had billed the operator-assisted collect calls as if I had made direct international calls (although actually the rate was well in excess of normal international direct dial rates, probably because of hotel surcharges). We tried to explain exactly what we did, and why we shouldn’t have to pay the full amount. What finally got them to see that we must be right? The Lonely Planet. We took out our Lonely Planet South India book and showed them the section on using the AT&T operator to make collect and calling card calls, which specifically mentions that the charge in India should be that of a local call. When the lady at the front desk started to complain about using the book as reference material, her manager quickly quieted her and assured her that the Lonely Planet was in fact not just any book. The hotel still checked this repeatedly with the phone company, etc., over the next hour (uncharacteristically we waited patiently while they confirmed because we didn’t want the desk clerk to somehow have to eat the cost from her check). They read verbatim from the Lonely Planet to the people with whom they were confirming the charges.
Maybe we should have bootleg Lonely Planets published somewhere, and whatever we write will be believed to be true. Free night’s stay for bald travelers? Half-price Pringles for anyone wearing glasses?