Aliya and I are in Mysore. We’re going to the palace.
We’re crossing the street. Or, rather, we’re considering crossing the street, but the traffic in the traffic circle is insane and we’re waiting for our moment. We’re waiting for our window. Crossing a busy street in this country is everywhere and always a leap of faith. The leap says, “I have faith that the rickshaws and motorcycles will not kill me as I weave in and out of their various paths.” Like most faith, it is a lie. At best, you believe it in that first step, the one that thrusts you into harm’s way–the one that requires you to believe it. After that, though, it’s gone. Everyone could kill you. You simply have to rely on everyone not killing you. Otherwise you’ll spend the whole day standing at a statue across the street from the back entrance of a royal palace, waiting for the traffic to clear up.
Which it won’t.
There’s an Indian man crossing with us. We follow his lead. Strength in numbers, you see: the willingness of a driver to mow you down on the asphalt is inversely proportional to the amount of damage the force of an impact with you would wreak on his vehicle. Such that crossing the street is always safer in a group, even when it’s not.
The Indian man crossing with us is a rickshaw driver/tout. A tout is a person who is trying to tout his wares, or the wares of his friend, or the wares of his “uncle.” This particular tout tells us that he will bring us to the old market, two or three kilometers away, for ten rupees. Twenty cents.
This is an unbelievable price, and in retrospect it was an obvious tell. But at the time the offer is so unbelievable that we believe it. We get in the rickshaw. We begin to drive.
We begin to drive in the wrong direction.
Aliya and I exchange knowing glances in the backseat. “Wonder where we’re going,” she says.
“Hard to say,” I reply. “Probably not the market.”
We giggle. There’s nothing to do but play this one out.
We end up in residential Mysore, walking into a shack built in some Shanti Shanti dude’s backyard, where we are about to be offered all sorts of wondrous items. We take a seat. I smoke a cigarette. We are shown handmade incense of a number of different varieties, oils of a number of different varieties, and hash. Good hash. Tasty-smelling hash.
I suddenly want some hash.
Aliya draws my picture in the guestbook. The guestbook is filled with accolades from various people who have been pleased with their visits to the Shanti Shanti guy. They have probably purchased his delicious hash. Or maybe they have purchased his aromatic oils. I purchase a little of both, though not without some negotiating.
Everything in India is a negotiation.
Me: “Okay, how about 100 rupees worth of hash, and 100 rupees worth of sandalwood oil?” The sandalwood oil here is world famous, and I figure I’ll give it to my mother, or something. What does one do with sandalwood oil? I have no idea.
Shanti Shanti guy: “Can you buy one hundred rupees of hash in your country?”
Me: “No, but I can’t get a gourmet meal for a dollar, either.”
We laugh. Shanti Shanti guy is awesome. He tries to upsell me.
“Two hundred rupees hash, two hundred rupees sandalwood.”
I meet him halfway: “One hundred rupees hash, two hundred rupees sandalwood.”
Deal. Money and goods are exchanged. Aliya finishes the portrait, signs my name for me, and underneath it I write, “BEST INCENSE EVER!” Shanti Shanti guy wishes us well, gifts us with incense, and we leave with rickshaw team. The rickshaw team wants to ask us a favor. Like this:
If Aliya and I go to two different stores and pretend to think about buying their overpriced handmade Kashmiri goods, the ride will be free, and he’ll drop us off at the Palace by seven, when the lights go on. We naturally accept. We walk around shops. We examine saris and hand-carved elephants, jewelery, ornate paper-mache lockboxes. We buy nothing. We get dropped off at the palace by the rickshaw driver, who doesn’t fail to mention how amazing we are as human beings, which figures: he got a commission from my 300 rupees, he got a kickback from the stores we pretended to be interested in shopping at, and he wants to drive us to the mountain tomorrow for 300 rupees. We’ve been good customers, and you always dote on the good customers. At least, if you want to make any money you do.
So he tells us how great we are. And we know it’s part of the spiel, but we decide to believe it–because why not, because it’s Valentine’s Day, and because it’s a nice thing to believe every once in a while. You know?