Desert cities are beautiful and unforgiving. Spending the extra rupees on a travel agent may be a golden investment you did not expect. Few cities fit their surroundings like Jaislamer: from the golden desert plain rises a gilded sandstone monolith and dream-carved castle, in seamless flow of sand and sandstone, perched against an artists’ blue that seems selected to probe the properties of hue.
Our hotel, too, is cut of the same stone, tucked into a corner of the citadel, on a small courtyard where a leashed cow blocks the narrow alley with stubborn immobility in the shade of an ancient, dusty fichus.
“Velcome, sir, madam,” says the smiling hotel manager, a young Indian man eager to please. “Please, enjoy your room. Can ve bring you anyting? Vater? Fresh lime soda?” Our balcony is plucked from Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights, overlooking the city of gold and shadows. For the first time in our six months of traveling, we have paid a tour agency to arrange every aspect of our weeklong tour of Rajasthan. So far, we are very pleased.
Having been scammed once or twice on this voyage through Asia, we inquire where we should purchase Rajasthan’s world-famous textiles. “Oh, yes sir,” says the manager, “wery good, sir. This one wery good, wery reliable, wery good quality.” He hands me a business card and gives me directions to the store.
The shop is a low-door, low-ceiling, tight-walled joint with a dry stagnant air. Brilliant textiles hang on three walls, and the fourth contains cubbies of hundreds of folded fabrics. A smiling, friendly Indian man invites us to sit on the couch. He offers tea. “Years ago,” he says, “ve vould smoke opium first, but not allowed today.” His head wobbles. “Too bad,” I joke. “Vell, sir,” he says, “If madam is ok with it, I might be able to find it.”
Now his assistant is pulling bedspreads one by one from the cubbies, and with a quick open-wing movement of his arms, releases their patterns and colors before us like a royal announcement. Then he lets them float to the floor. Lola inspects the color, the pattern, and the stitching. There are elephants and camels and peacocks of tangerines and magentas and crimsons and turquoises.
As this happens, the smiling man explains their textiles: supporting women’s small businesses, subsidized by the government, free shipping to anywhere in the world. In Spanish, Lola asks me if we are being scammed; we have heard these lines in scams from Indonesia to India. In Spanish, I respond we probably are, but if the price is good and the quality is good, we should forget about what he’s saying.
Lola chooses one bedspread. The man quotes its price at 7000 rupees (US$117). We begin to bargain, employing all the tricks we’ve learned—countering with a 25% offer, pointing out flaws in the work, asking for cheaper products, inventing cheaper stores, adding more merchandise, feigning disinterest—until he agrees to a final total price of 3600 (US$60) rupees for two king-sized bedspreads and six pillow covers. The assistant packs the merchandise into two bags, and we wonder how we will carry it all in our backpacks.
After the sun falls into the ancient ocean, we walk winding sandstone alleys too narrow for Minis or Tatas and browse the living goods of Bazaars and dwellings that line the royal roads. We smile at laughing children who are at home on sand and under sun. Hanging from one bazaar shop is a bedspread identical to the one we purchased.
“How much for that?” I ask out of curiosity. “1200,” says the boy selling it. “Son of a bitch,” I say to Lola. “That cannot be,” she says. Lola sends a text to our Indian hosts and friends in Delhi.
Lola: How much should we pay for a king-size bedspread here?
Harpriya: No more than 900.
“Duuuuuude!” she says. “We totally got screwed…again!”
Upon stepping into our hotel, the young manager is most pleased to see us. He has arranged a free, romantic dinner on the rooftop terrace for us. “Great,” I say, “but we have to talk.” His smile and his eyebrows drop to the sides.
I tell him the place he sent us to overcharged us. “I know that’s the way of the land, but we trusted them because of you,” I say. “Vhat can I do, sir?” he says. “Do you vant me to call them? Do you vant me to go?” Fear has overtaken his eyes. “He was your recommendation,” I say, “your friend. You fix it.” “Wery vell, sir,” he says. “Please, have a rest. I vill send you someting cool to drink. No problem, sir. All vill be fine.” He puts his hand on my shoulder.
Soon the manager is at our room with a tray of fresh lime sodas. “So sorry to boder you, sir,” he says, “but I have spoken with store and they said for you to go tomorrow. They vill take care of you. I have his vord, sir.”
In the morning, we are back at the textile shop. The salesman is absent. A fat man with sweat stains introduces himself as the owner. “I am happy to refund the money,” he says, “but I assure you that my product is the best quality.” He invites us to sit, have tea. We decline the tea.
I tell him we found the same bedspread on the street for 1200. “No, sir,” he says, “this is not the same quality.” “Exact same,” I say. He says his are higher quality, and the particular one we have chosen is higher priced because a most experienced seamstress made it.
Lola lays out our bedspread and points to an unembroidered faint ink pattern in an odd spot. “Vhat happens is,” he says, “they place the patterns there to learn, the new girls.” “So this was made by a new person?” I say, “Not an expert of the highest quality?” “No, sir,” he says, “this vas made by the most experienced, but they allow young girls to practice.” “We’ll take the money,” I say.
We return the merchandise, and he returns the money. He shakes my hand, and as I head for the door he pulls me toward him. “I vant to tell you someting, sir. I know this market. I know my product. I know this is the best you vill find. Please, go and look all over Rajasthan and vhen you have looked and are ready to come back and buy here, I vill not hold it against you.” I nod, thank him, and let go.
Lola and I are still amazed that we got our money back.
-M. Myers Griffith
Photos by Lola Pava
Originally published on Asia Sketches, December 13, 2013.
Thanks for reading!
- An Indian Train to Jaislamer (asiasketches.wordpress.com)
- A lesson in hospitality (asiasketches.wordpress.com)
- Scammed in Yogyakarta (asiasketches.wordpress.com)