(Written in Anjuna, March 13th)
I’m curious, after so long in India, just how much of their economy derives from the spending of tourists. I’m guessing it has to be a sizeable amount; judging by the amount of shops, the variety of goods for sale, and the sheer numbers of foreigners buying all kinds of rubbish. The flea market here in Anjuna is immense, catering to this insatiable foreign appetite for stuff.
Everywhere I’ve been, there are a plethora of shops all geared to tourists. It gets a little bewildering, after a while, trying to differentiate one from the other, as they all seem to sell variations on the same things. Shopkeepers expect that tourists will buy stuff; I heard one guy in Kochi yelling after some tourists in frustration, “Why did you come to India, if you don’t like to shop?” So as soon as they spot you, oh white-skinned rich foreign tourist, you’re marked as prey.
You probably know I’m not much of a shopper. Other than shoe stores and bookstores, I don’t generally go into stores just to browse or buy things on impulse. (Getting out of the World’s Biggest Bookstore or David’s Shoes without a few purchases, on the other hand, is an effort of will; it’s an even greater one just to walk on by without going in.) One of my shopaholic friends tells me that I shop like a man; I don’t think she meant it as a compliment.
But Indian shop owners don’t know this. They see “tourist” and they want me in their shop. Every one I walk past, I get cajoled or bullied in an effort to get me inside. “Come look my shop,” they croon at me as I go by. “Very good price, madam, just for today.”
Sometimes they mix it up a little; in Thekkady/Kumily, the favourite line was “Come inside, looking is free”; in Kochi’s Jewtown, they would urge me inside, pointing with a beaming smile to the sign on the front proclaiming theirs a “hassle-free shop”. I assume they didn`t count the hassling they did outside trying to get you to come in.
And if you do go inside .... well, brace yourself. If I shop at home, the salespeople will probably smile and ask me if I need help, but then just leave me alone to browse if I want. Here? You’ll be swarmed. A overwhelming array of goods will be thrust under your nose or into your arms, with constant entreaties to buy. You won’t physically be left alone from the moment you walk in to the moment you leave, and when you DO try to leave, you may find your arm grabbed or your path blocked in an effort to keep you there just a little bit longer and maybe make that elusive sale. Window-shopping is not a term that means anything here.
I started out being very polite, and responding to shopkeepers’ entreaties with “No, thank you”, and answering the inevitable questions that would follow. (“Where are you from?”, “Your first time in India?”, “How long are you here for?” and so on.) But any answer led to yet more questions, and eventually to a discussion of why i didn’t want to buy anything.
“I don’t have any money” meant they’d lower the price, or berate me for not realizing that it was a very-very good price and far better than I’d ever get at home. “I don’t need that” brought confused looks (I don’t think “need” enters into the equation of most tourist shopping), and more reminders about what a good deal it was. They’d ask me why I didn’t want to shop, didn’t I like India? Sometimes the manipulation would be more subtle: they’d seek to lay a guilt trip on me for not wanting to buy something for my mother, or my sister, or my best friend, or beseech me to buy since I was the very first customer and it would be bad luck for them if I didn’t buy anything. (Amazingly, I was the “first customer” a lot of places I went.)
I’ve learned, since starting out, that if I’m genuinely not interested to just keep walking and not respond.
And then there’s the haggling. I can tolerate shopping when there’s a price tag clearly displayed, and I know what I’d have to pay and I can make up my mind from there if it’s worth it to me. But fixed prices don’t exist here; everything’s a negotiation. Some tourists seem to approach it with the mindset of screwing every possible rupee off the price and becoming gleeful if they think they’d put one over on the shopowner.
I hate that. I’ll haggle if I have to, but I’m not out to screw them over. I figure if it’s worth it to me to pay that, then I’ve gotten an okay deal. Whether or not I could’ve squeeze another 50 rupees out of the Indian woman selling it to me doesn’t really matter. Sometimes, though, what I’d be willing to pay for something isn’t nearly what they have in mind, and my usual response is just to say no, thanks, and walk away. They’ll often chase after me, offering a lower price; sometimes they’ll rebuke me, as a rich tourist like me surely must be able to pay a more reasonable price. I’ll smile and shrug, and tell them to sell it to someone else who’s willing to pay more. (This got me my hippie dress in Goa, quite accidentally, as I walked out of the store the second time; the price immediately dropped to what I’d initially offered.)
I haven’t bought much, though, which makes me an anomaly among the tourist hordes. The sheer volume of stuff some people I’ve met have bought is mind-boggling; I’m sure they won’t look at most of it again once they get back home. Ali Baba pants, long mirrored cotton skirts, saris, spices, 5-kilogram silver elephant statues, rabbit-fur hats, statues of random gods and goddesses that they can’t even identify, pairs of identical tailor-made pants in a variety of colours, plant seeds (some of which definitely won’t grow in their home countries – papayas in Switzerland, anyone?) ... the list goes on. You name it, I’ve seen someone buy it. Most of them had much larger bags than I do and still managed to fill them beyond capacity; in one case, she even had a bag made just to carry all her extra purchases home.
Not me, thanks. I’ve bought a couple of things, that I’m wearing while I’m travelling, and I’ll probably buy a couple of presents before I go home. But that’ll be it; I don’t feel the need to accumulate material things just because they`re there, or because they`re better deals than I’d get at home. For one thing, if I wouldn`t buy it at home, then I don`t actually need it and a cheaper price here is irrelevant; for another, I have a small apartment and don`t really want to crowd my space any more than it already is. (And I definitely don't want to become one of those people who has to rent a storage locker just for all the extra crap I`ve accumulated!)
But it might be a good thing for the Indian tourism industry that not everyone is like me. The whole economy just might grind to a halt.