(Message sent Sat, 04 Nov 2006 03:03:56 -0700)
People think of India as a spiritual place, but it's hard not to get the impression that in fact it's all about the money. This is slightly unfair for at least two reasons: most of the Indians I meet are of course associated with the tourist industry; and while the constant, soul-sapping, wearying money-grubbing that goes on would be simple greed in the West, I think it is something more akin to desperation here. I've had people plead with me to allow them to clean my boots for ten rupees (about 30 cents), and people are so anxious to sell you their unspeakably awful plastic kitch (mini Taj Mahal snowglobe on a keychain, anyone?) that they frequently reduce their asking price by a factor of ten in the course of a few steps, for something you have not the slightest interest in buying. So I'm convinced that these are desperate people just trying to feed their families, but it can make for a very unpleasant time trying to get to and from the major attractions.
Not even the holy places are immune. I visited the small but magnificent tomb of a holy man inside a mosque. There was no charge to enter, but you were encouraged to make a donation for a bag of flowers to sprinkle on the grave (5000 rupees was suggested to me as appropriate!), then you were encouraged to place money on the grave itself, and then you were taken round the back to another tomb of someone-or-other and asked to leave a donation there too.
There are exceptions of course (no-one asked any money for anything at the Golden Temple for example), but it is hard to resist the notion that Indians see us tourists as coming equipped with money-udders, and that everyone you meet wants nothing so much as to give yours a good hard squeeze.
But the system can lead to good experiences too. I was stumbling about in the maze of alleyways and tiny shops just south of the Taj Mahal trying to find a new memory card for my camera. (I had come equipped with enough for 750 shots - but had taken half that number in the first week!) A friendly young lad called Shiva latched on to me, and eventually we found a man with a shop the size of a phone booth who had a grubby lunchbox that contained exactly what I needed. Shiva claimed that he would get no commission from the sale, which I am sure is a lie, but he was friendly and seemed genuine about helping me, and didn't take me to any carpet sellers.
And then there was the Peanut Man. A hotel bell-hop noticed me eating peanuts and offered to make me his special recipe. This turned out to consist of heated peanuts mixed with garam masala and finely-chopped green chillies, tomatoes and cucumbers. They were sensational. He said that he had invented this dish for consumption with whiskey, but that he couldn't afford whiskey at the moment because he had no money, hint hint. So he got a bit of money and I got a nice little experience out of it.
This brings me neatly to the subject of food. It's rather good around these parts :-). The first delight is that all food is divided into two universally-understood classes: "veg" and "non-veg." These are words in their own right, to the extent that you often hear "non-veg" being used in a double negative: "We don't have non-veg here." And veg is very much the default. Non-veg is usually a small section in the back of the menu. How the tables have turned!
The English used in the menus is often peculiar. How, for example, could I resist ordering a dish called "Vegetable Curry Bomb"? This turned out to be a samosa drowned in a curry gravy - the Indian equivalent of a pie floater I guess. It was very good, but I've no idea which aspect was supposed to be bomb-like.
I've also gotten very used to having parathas for breakfast. These are very thin flaky bread things stuffed with grated vegetables, and served piping hot with a chutney. Scrummy!