Friday, July 3, 2009

Avoiding Being Hustled At the Taj Mahal

The lone impala, separated from his herd, grazes on the sweet grasses of the African savannah. Instinct tells him to look out for predators, but he has little chance of survival. He has to outrun the chic cheetah, elude the lions, escape the elusive leopard, and spot the band of harping hyenas, not to mention the occasional African wild dogs. The odds are not with him. The life expectancy of the lone impala is short.

Replace the lone impala with the lone traveler on the trek to the Taj Mahal in Agra. He doesn’t stand a fiscal chance against the Agra hustlers. Bring in an extra supply of rupees and your platinum card; you’ll need them.

It begins on the drive to Agra. The driver asks if you want lunch, as he pulls off into a restaurant/gift shop. I’m used to this on the island tours of the Hawaiian Islands. The driver deserves a meal and break on the arduous drive. Besides I found some beautiful gifts to bring back. Make sure you tip the guy hanging out in the restroom. He keeps it clean. He also won’t let you out without a tip.

The real hustle begins in Agra. The driver pulls into a small, private parking lot near one of the Taj’s gates. As soon as he pulls into the lot, you’re trapped like the impala surrounded by the pride of lions. A young rickshaw driver suddenly knocks on your window, and two competing rides magically appear.

You like to walk, but in 120° you accept the ride. Then a relative (they’re all related) hands you his laminated business card, and offers to serve as your guide at the Taj. If you like his services, you can pay at the end. Suddenly hats are foisted on you, to shade your balding head from the blazing sun. Rupees are consumed in the heat.

Your rickshaw driver stops and hands you over to his father, who will do the heavy peddling. And then Johnny and Raja appear selling t-shirts and booklets. Raja’s good; he has great potential as a politician. Both Johnny and Raja said to remember them as I leave the Taj. I promise them I will be back.

The guide was great navigating the entrance process and security, and very informative on his personalized tour. He warned me to keep control of my wallet as I entered the Taj itself because things can happen in crowded quarters. He speaks perfect English, but obviously has never been on the New York City subway.

The tour was great, retracing our steps in exiting. Therein lies a problem. He did not mention The Taj Mahal Museum, which I assume either includes a gift shop or unrelated private vendors. It would have been nice, especially if air conditioned.

Instead he took me to the Agra Marble shop on the way out. The ambience included two urchins spinning wheels, as if they were really producing china and marble. I bought three expensive items.

Was I hustled?


Did I know I was being hustled?


Did I overpay?


Did I know I was overpaying?


Would I do it again?

Yes, it was the Taj, and I probably will never be back.

The hustle was not over. Outside the Agra Marble Shop, my carriage/rickshaw awaited. And so did Johnny and Raja. The insistent, incessant urchins, straight out of Dickens, could not take no for an answer as they shoved t-shirts and booklets onto me, with the prices ever changing as we got closer to the parking lot. “You promised; you promised!” they exclaimed.

I promised to remember them, and if you read this posting, you will concur that I kept my promise.

Finally the road back to Delhi.

Lessons from the Taj:

1) Do not go alone;
2) Go preferably with at least one Indian who knows how to run interference.

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