Gem scams and rickshaw wallahs
Trip Start Dec 26, 2003
94Trip End Mar 28, 2005
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With a spring in my step, a smile on my face and a ticket the hell outta here, I approached the pink painted train station. Escape from the odious pit that is Jaipur, one of the alleged jewels in the Indian tourist crown of thorns was imminent.
But whoa! The departures board says my train leaves from platform six. OK, I am on platform one and the signs for platforms 2 to 5 are clear. "Porter! Where does the train to Udaipur leave from?"
A more accurate description of the conversation was: "Udaipur????" followed by a series of hand signals. The response hand signal indicated, "That way, over the-ere-ere-ere." Where was my train? My heart was in my mouth. Was Jaipur to play one final, painful trick on me?
On exiting Jaipur train station I was surrounded by a number of hotel touts, people who add absolutely no value to the existence of the prepared traveler. I knew where I wanted to stay - that it had been knocked down in between the publishing of my guide book and my arrival in Jaipur was something for me to resolve a bit later, for now I had a train station to exit, no mean feat to achieve it without some undesirable in tow - and had decided my approach would be to act like a blinkered horse and to ignore and not speak to anyone.
My method elicited a response from the one tout who had decided to follow me fifty metres towards the gate of, "Hey man, you're in India you know, you've got to speak to Indian people."
The response in my mind that I wanted to give him was that yes I was in India, which gives me a choice of 300 million Indian people to choose from to speak to and at that very moment in time he sat behind the 299,999,999 others in the order of my priorities. But that would break the rule I had set myself and I am sure that my humour would have been wasted on him. I'll have to save that line for Agra, I'm sure it will be wasted on whichever waster I use it on.
I visit the Old City in Jaipur which was painted pink to please the Prince of Wales on a visit he made in 1853. I don't know why they decided pink would please Prince Albert. Had it been Charles I could understand, "Well we know about your desire to be a tampon within Camilla Parker-Bowles, so dress in white, Charlie-boy, and dive on in to Jaipur!"
I received little but constant attention from cycle rickshaw wallahs, auto rickshaw wallahs and vendors of any piece of tourist tat you can imagine. "My friend." Point one, you are not my friend, you are not ever going to be my friend, you are somebody who wants to sell me something I don't want to buy and stop trying to run me over. "Which country are you from?" This is the most tedious question, can you really not think of a more interesting way of engaging me in conversation? And stop trying to run me over, do you think I am going to get into a vehicle with somebody who seems to be trying to demonstrate that they have no control over something that they want me to get into? Are they trying to sell me a ride to a hospital as I have got a broken foot caused by them? Hey! I think I might have just discovered the next great Indian scam.......
That evening just as I am about to walk through the door to my hotel a young guy approaches me. It is about the millionth approach I have had by now today, but he asks something different about western festivals, pertinent as Diwali is approaching in India, rather than the tedious beyond words "Where are you from?"
We talk a bit and he is quickly joined by a friend. There is nothing openly strange about this, in India a crowd is often drawn when a foreigner stops. After talking for a while, the friend casually asks, "Are you doing anything right now? Do you want to go for a tea?" As I have been invited for a tea by a million Pakistanis, I think nothing of it, and readily agree. We walk past a couple of tea shops and I think to say, "Hey, this one looks ok," but the words don't make it out of my mouth. He then opens the door to a darkened window fronted shop; I look in to see a gem store.
I let out a loud sigh that I wanted them to hear, loud enough that they couldn't possibly have failed to hear. I wanted to express my disgust at myself for being so stupid as to talk with them and for them to get an impression of my contempt for them.
Inside the shop were a couple of guys, with their feet kicked back and looking very relaxed. They were smiling. "Come in! Sit down!" I don't know why, but I did.
One of the two guys, who went by the name of Tito - I always wondered if he knew he was going by the name of a Yugoslavian Communist dictator, somebody must have told him - was really smooth and even though I am sure he is a thieving confidence trickster, I still like the guy to this day. That's how good he was at his chosen profession. He was always almost completely aloof from the whole business side of things. He talked like a traveler in a happy, chatty, happy-go-lucky, couldn't care less kind of way. He even appeared to think like a traveler.
The other guy went by the name of Janu and had an untrustworthy, raspy voice. He sounded like someone had slit half of his vocal chords off in some violent, bloody act, always almost gasping for air to help him pass the words through his lips.
It was to Tito who I talked to almost exclusively as I sat and sipped the tea. "Have you eaten?" he asked me in his happy-jolly voice. I hadn't. "Then we must go to Tiger Food. We are going tonight; you are welcome to join us. We have a car; we'll drive up there after the shop closes. There are such great views from up there." Tiger Food, if it exists, is supposedly located by Tiger Fort which sits above Jaipur looking down over the city. Before the shop closed he got a phone call and had to leave for some unclear business reason but not before he had offered to take me to Monkey Temple the next day. He - amazingly - just happened to be driving out to a popular tourist site, as I guess every local does once in a while.
When I arrive at the store the next morning, there is an Israeli guy sitting with Tito, who introduces him as his "friend". It transpires that this is the Israeli's second trip to India. I put two and two together and assume that the Israeli had met Tito on his previous trip and just happened to be in town and had dropped by to pay an old friend a visit.
Tito explains that we are waiting for Janu with the car and then we'll all merrily make a day trip off to Monkey Temple. The three of us chat away for an hour, just about traveling and so on, not a mention of business or gems.
The Israeli then needs to use the toilet, but the gem store has no facility for this, so I offer the use of mine as my hotel is just a couple of minutes walk away.
As soon as we are alone - which is something I am sure Tito wanted to avoid - the Israeli asks me, "So, are you doing business with them too?"
"Errr, no, they haven't asked me to do anything yet. What kind of business?"
"Well, they've told me not to tell anyone," - Uh-oh!!!!!! - "but......" He goes on to explain to me that they can use a tax loophole by getting tourists to carry or mail home up to 12,000 pounds worth of gems tax free, whereas they would have to pay a punitive 250% tax. For his efforts - taking the gems home and delivering them to an Indian gem dealer in Tel Aviv - he receives 100% of the value of the goods he carries, collectable from the gem dealer on delivery, and they save the other 150% tax. Everyone's a winner, except the nasty Indian government who don't get to collect their tax. They'll even throw return flights to Delhi in. There's a bit about him having to give them $400 of travellers' cheques, but that appears to be his only potential loss. "Do you think I should do it? I mean, they wouldn't go to all that bother just for $400, which wouldn't even cover the airfare."
He had a point and it seemed plausible. "If your maximum downside is $400 and you have a potential upside of $22,000 equivalent, then it's like buying a $400 lottery ticket, it's your decision whether you are happy with the downside." I left it unspoken that lottery tickets in the UK had a 14 million to 1 chance of producing a jackpot and that it was more likely that somebody might blow up the plane that he flew home on.
On return to the gem store, a motorbike rider had arrived. Janu had been delayed on business with the car and so that I don't miss out on Monkey Temple, I would be biked out there. The biker was a nice guy and gave me plenty of info about the temple, which was nothing special, but I still managed to pass a few hours wandering up around the complex. All the time my mind was wandering, "12,000 quid for taking a few gems to Camden Town....... There must be a catch. How can they get money from me?"
It was avarice that led the thoughts - "12,000 quid for taking a few gems to Camden Town" - not the soft, soft undertones of caution. Sexy Miss Avarice in a tight, red leather dress, devil's tail wiggling out of the back like a cartoon character fluttering her eyelidsm "Come here, sir," her index finger gesturing me towards her whilst beating down motherly Mrs. Caution.
I went to the internet café and searched "gem AND scam" on a popular travel forum. It returned a thread entitled "Scams in India" with 135 entries. Sounds like what I am looking for...... It made chilling reading. After this Avarice looked like she'd gone 10 hours in the bedroom with Iron Mike Tyson in a particularly horny mood.
Posts reporting bad experiences with scammers and gems leading to personal money losses.....135
Posts reporting a man awaiting them at Camden Town Jewellery Shop with a smile and a bag containing their 12 grand errrrr......NIL
But they hadn't asked me yet. They had spent hours gaining my confidence and hadn't made a move yet......
I saw Tito at the gem store, he was babbling about food and Tiger Food in particular. That sounded good.
Janu decides that he can't wait any longer and launches into an explanation of how I can help him avoid export tax and the generous sum of money I will receive if I do so. "So, do you want to do business?" he concludes.
He's got a point. Why? My first answer of refusal was planned. I hadn't thought forward enough to answer the effective question of, "Why do you not want to make an easy twelve thousand quid without saying 'because I'll never get the money because I know that you are a thieving, lying, conning b*****d.'"
Gotta think on my feet. Because I know it's a scam - no. Because I am the son of an oil tycoon and I simply don't need the money - no they know where I am staying as they picked me up just about to enter it and the Hotel Amit isn't the Jaipur Hilton. Because I'm clinically insane - no they've spent the past two days checking me out. Because I am just too lazy and can't be bothered to make a quick buck - doesn't exactly cut it.
I go for the fairly honest route. "Things that sound to good to be true usually are. I don't know the Indian tax laws and I may be unknowingly breaking laws." All factually accurate.
"We are aware that there are many bad people out there," they said and wait for it, hold on, you know it's coming, it's the classic, "But we're not like them!" There you go! The only gem dealers in India with scruples and hey! They found me on the street. Wasn't that good of them? "We're not asking you to buy anything." Not yet!!!!!
Jamu is pushing for closure as Tito kicks back with his "buts" and reasons why I should enter into "business" with them. Jamu asks me multiple times and at one point offered 5,000 pounds up front in India and the rest when I got to London. Tito somehow gives me a feeling of ease, he even chimes in with, "Well, we can't make you do anything you don't want to do." This is why I probably still like Tito and would still go out for a beer with him. When I left he also offered me a lift to my hotel - only 200 metres away - shook my and hand wished me well. I think he knew I knew it was a scam. They could have got aggressive, to their credit they didn't and it didn't appear that these guys ever would, say unless I had 5,000 pounds of their cash that they wanted back.
I knew there would be a scam on the second I walked through the door, but I didn't know what and the lack of them trying to sell you anything really does throw you. The fact that they wait so long and get your confidence just by being so normal, that they even point out to you that they just have some spare time and are always happy to chat and are not trying to sell you anything and having such a small percentage of the conversation about business all adds to the absorption of the whole scenario.
Back at my hotel I spend hours in bed thinking, unable to get to sleep. My main thoughts were: They know where I am staying, do I change hotels? They could come to my room and steal stuff as the hotel entrance was up a side flight of stairs with nobody really guarding it. I was worried and my mind raced and raced with Domesday scenarios.
My solution was to get up the next morning and go to the train station and see if I could get a ticket out that night. There was no problem in buying a ticket on a sleeper train out of Jaipur that night to my complete and utter delight. I just needed to get through one more day of tourism in the city which turned out to be reasonably pleasant.
As I bought my train ticket, a French tourist engaged me in a short but poignant conversation, "Are you sick of Jaipur?" he asked offering a withery, gloomy look.
"Yes," I replied more concisely than I would have thought possible.
"Me too," he smiled, probably at the thought of his ticket out. I smiled back, sweetened by the thought of my ticket out.
Back at the train staion that night I found platform six and my sleeper berth after what I had been through, did you think that hiding an entire train platform from me would be possible?