Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Incredible India: Tour Guides between Sacred Cows and Cash Cows


Looking for a good tour guide
A tour guide is an essential resource and I know, having visited a number of places. Their knowledge of the object of interest; be it, the history, the architecture, the people, the customs and other useful trivia is invaluable.
They also give good tourist advice – what to expect, how to react, what to do, where to meet and many more things – then, they are agents, agents of local businesses that depend on tourist foot fall, as restaurants and manufacturers of souvenirs and goods of sometimes substandard quality sold as exquisite.
In cahoots to irk us
We picked up our guide as soon as we entered Agra, after introductions, he immediately suggested we stopover for lunch, whilst there was keen interest in getting to the Taj Mahal we were hungry and easily out-voted the keenest of all of us to step in for lunch.
The buffet was a set price and I specifically asked if it included all taxes and charges, the guide replied in the affirmative. I felt in a strange restaurant, a buffet presented a see-smell setting that you could not read off the menu, so I opted for the buffet.
Some of us placed orders a la carté and we tucked in, at one of our stopovers, I had a local yoghurt/curd drink called lassi – they say it is good for stabilising stomachs at risk of traveller’s diarrhoea – so I had a glass of that too and noticed the difference between the nonsense I had earlier and the finesse I had this time.
When the handwritten bills came, the charges were extra rather than included, that spelt the beginning of the tour guide’s woes in terms of our future generosity – I was in a group of people who had being taken for a ride.
[My trainer was mortified by the fact that the bills were not printed, suggesting there was a racket going on; the printed bills were probably for tax purposes as the restaurateurs fleeced the tourists creaming off the extra.]
High value entry
We boarded our van again and then made for the Taj Mahal, foreigners pay 750 rupees, members of the SAARC countries pay 510 rupees and we are all referred to as “High Value Ticket Holders”
The tour guide got the tickets and after going through the list of prohibited items, because of my MP3 player, I had to put my bag in a free locker. Included in the ticket price was a bottle of water and covers for our shoes.
From the ticket office we boarded a battery operated vehicle that took us to the gate, we were told to spurn offers of other kinds of rides that came at extra cost.
At the main gate to the Taj Mahal, there were queues for Indians separate from those for foreigners and then the ladies had a separate queue to with shielding where they had to pass through security.
Reading the sign “High Value Ticket Holder Ladies” could almost have been read as high-class prostitutes – therein is the unintended context of sign-posting.
For our security, the loss of liberty
Soon we were though security; it must be brisk business for security firms in India with the X-Ray scanners, the walk-through metal detectors, the wands amongst other security paraphernalia.
All accesses to the metro stations have one, the ladies are given separate access, even the vegetarian outlet beside my training centre had one.
In the midst of assumed freedoms the communal liberties have acquiesced to searches and demands for information that will make Westerners rise in revolt – that is the way in South Asia, tensions remain high, hot-heads abound and fanatics when triggered by Machiavellian leaders up to no good for political advantage, there is no telling where the next spot of danger lies.
A new camera idea
The tour guide corralled us and explained a few things about the out-buildings before he tried to shop us to photographers for prices we were not ready to pay. Much as we like to handle pictures on photographic paper, I think we have more of tendency to take digital pictures we can share online.
Now, if there were cameras with proximity transfer technology that allowed professionals to take pictures with their high-end cameras and expertise then swipe those into the memory repositories of our low-end digital cameras, there might well be a case for these vulture photographers.
We resisted and hardly 5 steps on, we were being offered the same service for half the price, by which time we were not ready to listen to whatever was being said, we wanted to go straight to the Taj Mahal.
After a short explanation about the place, the buildings and some history, we walked through the gate to behold – covered in the next blog – we arranged to rendezvous up in 90 minutes.
Stone cold annoyed
On exiting the grounds, we boarded a battery powered vehicle for the car park but we disembarked much earlier as the tour guide called for the van to pick us up.
After collecting my bag, the tour guide gave us some spiel about the art and craft of marble stonemasonry was in decline and our visiting a “government sponsored” project will help sustain that craft.
I was not persuaded to leave the bus, whilst others left to learn about masonry, interesting to some but once again, the bilking of tourists had spoilt the atmosphere that we were close to insurrection if not lynching the tour guide.
We could not be persuaded to visit an embroidery shop across the road and the suggestion to visit a carpet factory gained no traction because there were no carpets at the Taj Mahal and if the carpets were Persian – we might well be in Iran.
[My trainer felt the carpet making trade was an atrocious abuse of children in sweat shops.]
Not a tip for the trip
As we parted ways with the tour guide, there was not much gratitude left to express, the tips were hardly tipping out of our wallets, what he eventually got was derisory at best and maybe a lesson for another time.
The Indians have their sacred cows but tourists to India somehow get preyed upon as cash cows, only this time, we wised up to the fact that we will not be done over again.

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