Monday, February 13, 2012

Oh, all the pain you gotta take as a tourist

It is a hot humid afternoon in Mumbai and I just ticked off the last item on my sites-to-see list. India is a great place to visit but only for those with sufficient stamina. It can be overwhelming. Am just fresh out of all stamina. Gotta go home. Taxi!

In the taxi, I give the driver my address. He glances at it, smiles and says, “I take you see very good silk. Then I take you see good jewellery. Pure gold. Just three places. I take you to see souvenir shop and then I take you home.” “No thanks. Just take me home,” I politely respond. “No ma’am. No worry. All shop is very near. I take you,” he insists as he swings out of the packing slot onto the street. “No. Don’t take me silk or whatever. Just take me home,” I now say more firmly. He smiles, nods and I consider the matter settled. Guess what? Ten minutes later, he pulls onto the pavement and says to me, “Here, best silk, good price. Go see.”

It is not that he didn’t understand me when I protested. Taxi drivers there just don’t care where you tell them to take you. They will always take you first to the shops that pay them a commission for ushering in customers and later on to your destination. You just gotta suck it up because you are a tourist. Your kind was born to be bullied into spending money unnecessarily. And so even on that afternoon with my legs threatening to go into rigor mortis I dragged myself into all three shops he insisted on taking me to and dutifully even if forlornly gazed at their wares. Get this; my eventual taxi fare included the cost of all these detours. They wouldn’t even consider turning the meter off as they take you to places you protest being taken to.

At the time I visited, Chinese shops had not caught on the genius of paying taxi drivers to drag customers in. But, that didn’t make the Beijing taxi experience a straight forward take me from here-to-there experience. Not if you look totally foreign as a black woman speaking zero Mandarin might. After four days of depending entirely on my Chinese hosts to take me from place to place, I decided to venture out on my own. Going out was straight forward. A hotel worker flagged down a taxi for me, gave the driver my chosen destination which turned out to cost me a mere 10 yuan on the meter. Deep breath. Not so fast. It took me atleast 30 minutes to find a taxi back to the hotel after the most stressful shopping experience of my life. No taxi would agree to use the metre. Every one of them insisted I pay at least 45 yuan (for a journey that I knew was 10 by the metre) or go to hell. Damned if I allowed myself be so arrogantly bullied. With creative and vigorous sign language, I finally got one to run by the metre. 1:0 for me! Again, not so fast, he ensured he goes by a route so far that in the end by paid 55 yuan. It is a metred drive I wanted, right? There, I had it!

About the preceding the shopping experience, let’s just say shopping in Owino is child play. That so effective sales trick that says, ‘convince the customer to come to your stall by threatening to pull their arm off’ was invented by Chinese market women. Plus, every buy, (and I mean every last buy including airtime) is a hard knocks’ lesson in bargaining. An airtime card that is labeled 25 yuan may actually hold talking time worth only 5 yuan so be sure to bargain for the last imaginable price. How do you bargain in Mandarin? By vigorously shaking your head at every figure the aggressive trader scribbles in your palm. I hope you remembered to carry some hedex.

But surely, the experience in one’s own home country must be so much more pleasant. For one, you have the advantage that you can curse anyone who tries to bully you in a language they understand. Hihihi. Good luck with finding a tourist bully who even bothers to hear your curses.

I went to the Country Lake Resort in Garuga on the strength of a line on their brochure that promised a restful time at a secluded beach front. Turns out I showed up on the evening when the secluded beach resort had scheduled a Grace Nakimera concert. So I had to suck it up and lie in bed awake for half the night while Grace and her fans partied loudly. A tourist never runs out of back luck. The next night started off restful but at 4am, someone started mowing the lawn. First it was a distant rumbling but enough to keep you awake. 20 minutes later, the mower was about two cottages away from mine. The residual headache from the night before was beginning to pick up. Then, he was right outside my door. I jumped out of bed and protested. Give the guy some credit; he did switch the mower off long enough to allow for my tirade. Three minutes later, he switched it back on with this simple explanation, “Madam, here we cut the grass on Thursday morning.” I called the manager to back me up. I had paid quite a sum for the supposed restful time. He said he was off the lodge grounds but would talk to the mowers. No further word from him. The mowing went on until 8am when I stormed his office packed and ready to check out. Credit here again. He did show some regret that I was leaving. That was before he informed me that he did not have any cash to refund me for the other two nights I had paid for in advance. Two painful nights and quite a bit poorer, I had got my full punishment for the foolishness of playing tourist in my own country. Next time, I want some peace and quiet weekend, I am going to my late grandfather’s farm in Mubende!

It is not always bad service that you have to put up with. Sometimes it is service that is a tad too good. Your plate may get cleared while you pause the meal to gaze into the eyes of your lover across the table. There goes that cluster of olives were saving for last. That’s what you get for going to a resort so good they assign a waiter to stand waiting at every table. But the cookie on annoyingly good service for me was at a lodge in the Murchison Falls National Park area. In the early evening, I got a rap on the door. “Excuse me, I have come to turn up your bed.” As it was, my partner and I were in the process of turning up the bed quite a bit so we giggled, “No thanks. We don’t need that tonight.” A few seconds of silence and we thought we were alone again. Then, another rap. “Can I put down the mosquito nets?” Seriously?! “No, we don’t need that either!” Another, few seconds and “But please you don’t understand. It is a service at the lodge. I have to turn up the bed!” Yes, there is only one way to respond. Stop whatever you are doing and let the guy turn up your bed. You paid for it. Get it.