Monday, March 3, 2008

Silk for Sale

Someone said that the best silk comes from Varanasi but its the worst place to buy it because you'll get hustled. Everyone tries to sell you silk. Ask one question or walk into one shop and they will sit you down, serve you chai and start rolling out countless pashminas, saris, shawls, brocades, pillow cases... one after another after another until there is a huge pile in front of you. They need to learn to give less choice to their customers because for people with our arduous decision making, it protected us most of the time from buying anything and probably drove them all insane. We probably left behind a wake of babbling merchants, forever relentlessly bathing themselves in the river to wash off their confusion.

Most of our silk we did by came from Baba Black Sheep. Baba has a silk emporium a little on the outskirts of old town...a bit hard to find, with fixed prices a little higher then some, but at least his fabrics are supposedly real. You'll find it listed in some of the travel guides.

The "touts" also get annoying. Touts are worldwide...Thailand, Mexico, South America etc...they're people who make a career trying to drag tourists into shops, hotels, taxis, boat trips, guided tours, whatever. In India because of the population, they are like touts squared, times one hundred. The drag is that you become reluctant to talk to any of the locals because it starts to seem as if you talk to anyone or ask one single question about anything, they will coincidently have whatever it is or something or somewhere to take you or show you. Who is sincere and who not? It's always "just one look, no money....or pay what you wish...another famous hook line... and how much do you want?
Tourists are told to avoid touts but I have found some do have useful information as long as you know what game you are playing.

We met a young teenage Indian boy at a crowded restaurant who waved to us to share his table. He was with a young deaf Australian girl he had befriended over the past few years of her coming to Varanasi with her aunt. She could read lips well and sat drawing through lunch and talking about the history of their friendship.
He was obviously somewhat of a tout but he had a charm about him at such a young age and he wasn't trying to disguise his intentions much. He also spoke Italian and a couple other languages and knew a lot outside of his world, so I was giving him high points for his ambition and intelligence plus he was informative.
He offered to show us the temples and also talked about meeting and having our fortunes done by his Guru...supposedly some well known and amazing holy man from up north who was in the city on his way south.
We did want to see some of the temples and someone getting us through this maze of streets would shorten the trip by say 15 years but I suspected he mostly wanted us to see the shop where he "worked". I thought this could be a fair trade and could manage yet another vast presentation of textiles and more chai.

We made it to the first small temple...a Lakshmi temple... where an argument immediately ensued between our guide and the attendant at the door that seemed to be regarding us non-Hindus being allowed in...or maybe the kid was arguing for his commission to whatever donation we were about to make.
Anyway, something got sorted out and we got shuffled in after this big crowd of bowing and prostating Indians left.
Sitting there was a small Brahman boy priest or attendant that was receiving the offerings and performing the rites etc and was barking orders. He seemed to be bitching the whole time either as to what we should do or bitching at the door attendant outside. Maybe he was saying that there are some dumb Americans in here and what kind of donation did they give and what the hell is he supposed to do with us now... because it didn't sound all that reverent, it sounded like he was annoyed. The whole thing lasted like a minute and we were then back out on the street and off again. Now our guide announced, it was really too late to see any more temples until morning and we could go meet his guruji about a reading. I should have seen that coming but I was more curious about the holy man than any more temples anyway.
We went through some twists and turns and to a dead end and greeted another attendant. We remove our shoes and go in and here sits a big guy with the booming personality and look of Pavarotti. He greeted us with a warmly, bellowing for us to to sit... and have some chai with him.... which we politely decline. The thing is, I want to know where my chai has been and I don't want to get sick from chai possibly made with Ganges water.
He then gives us a history of who he is and what he does, his service to his ashram and to his guru... whom he said, he could not speak his name.
For his readings; he would take donations and of these, 90% went to his ashram in Haridwar and only 10% he keeps for his food, cigarettes and bla bla bla. The readings were astrological or channeled depending on which you preferred and he would tell you your past life kharma, what this life's purpose was and possibly your future life.
Being that I am in India partially because of a mid-life, re-inventing search of myself...well...that could all be cool.

How much were these readings?

Well.... like $50 U.S. for an astrological chart all the way to around $300 for channeling....but of course "money is of no issue" he tells us...these were merely suggested amounts. It is whatever you feel the readings were worth... to your life and he would take any amount for his charitable causes which where more what the donation was towards and not payment for the readings per se.
A uh....
Me thinks we've been had and that this is but one stop on the tout route. But this is more uncomfortable than brushing off someone on the street. We are very cordially trapped like rats.
And still...who was this guy? Thats what gets to your curiosity.
He mentioned he was a sadhu but he's far too overfed in my view.
There's a picture of Sai Baba hanging there and I wonder if this is the name of his guru he cannot speak.
Why not I wonder?
So I say it for him. "Oh I see you have Sai Baba's photo up there"
No answer and no thunder bolts.
"So ....what is our wish?" he asks.
[Some uncomfortable silence]
Lynne speaks up and tells him she is very interested in this sort of thing....however... she feels pressured and wasn't prepared for this right now.
I then tell him that I only have a couple hundred rupees on me and if I only give that I will feel guilt in comparison to all others who give $50 to 300 dollars and it would therefore be better for me to not have a feeling of guilt and being cheap regarding such important matters.
I feel clever with my answer.
I think he saw we weren't going to go for it and dismisses the readings. "No worries" he says, we can come back anytime, but we must have chai with him as he feels good that we visited and he also offers me a cigarette. "Terrible habit" he says. I take the cigarette but don't want the chai. The chai comes anyway to his bellowing laugh and so we drink.
Know mind you, leading to this point, I had begun thinking of the book The Serpentine and how a most infamous and notorious con artist drugged or poisoned countless of tourists in India and Thailand to rob them. Others from him, have known to follow suit so I am now trying to read him as I sip this chai reassuring myself that I have a huge tolerance to drugs and if I feel the slightest hint of anything coming on I'm grabbing Lynne and bolting out of here. The guy is sitting back too far to stop me and I should be able to take the kid right?
But the cigarette is now making me dizzy...or is it a drug? Shit what now? I hate this. I hate talking about money and I now hate that I am suspicious of every conceivable scam and danger right now. What if this was a golden meet-Jesus-Christ-himself opportunity and I'm thinking the worst I dizzy or....?
All of a sudden, he cordially shakes our hands, wishes us well and tells us he is here if we should so desire to come back.
I feel stupid for all this mistrust... maybe I should have had a reading, maybe he has the power, but maybe this reconsideration is part of another tact; the ol' psychological missing the boat ploy.
But we leave anyway. My salvation will have to come in another form.

Outside the door is a couple western girls brought by some other "devotee" and one gushes to me; "ohhhhh how was it?"
" was.....great. Try the chai...and go for the channeling"
And we walk.
I then apologize to our little host for not being able to accommodate his guru more and ask to see his shop as I know this will make him very happy as I see he is sulking a bit.

We go to a rather large shop filled with Muslim merchants...everyone stands and greets us and has us sit. Again....and for the umpteenth time with the sitting and of course have more chai while hundreds of pashminas, brocades and scarves are unrolled and piled before us.
After the pile develops, we buy a bunch just to get out of there and to rid ourself of our little guide to go find trouble on our own again. Its our last night here.

1 comment:

Juliet* said...

Fun and exciting..a well-told story!