Travel writer Chuck Thompson on the evil genius of Indian salesmen

Travel writer Chuck Thompson on the evil genius of Indian salesmen

How tenacious are they? For his new book, "To Hellholes and Back," Thompson found out the hard way. Again and again
Chuck Thompson
"You only think you want two mangoes. In fact, you want fifteen!"

The following is excerpted from the rather amusing and insightful book “To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies and the Art of Extreme Tourism,” by Chuck Thompson, published this month by Henry Holt and Company.

The biggest hassle in India

Indian salesmen are impossible. The irrepressible over-ambition of the country’s merchant class stalks you like a disease from the moment you step outside your hotel, forcing you to become the kind of blinkered, “Get the hell away from me” survival-mode tourist tosser you’ve always promised yourself you’d never become. Being white in this country puts a target on your back the size of a garlic naan.

Amid the stream of pleas, promises, and come-ons there are flashes of levity -- “Sir, wouldn’t you be honored to visit the shop where Richard Gere, Paul McCartney, and Wes Anderson have all bought spices?”

Mostly, though, the pressure comes from death-or-glory wheeler-dealers who throw themselves at you in unrelenting waves, like post-modern cinematic hyper-zombies -- forever approaching, hooting, hissing, demanding, wheedling, pawing, clawing, badgering, hassling, negotiating, renegotiating, reneging, hectoring, flim-flamming, lurking, following, promising, promoting, emoting, up-charging, lying, prying, spying, conniving, and, worst of all, sometimes actually convincing you to buy crap you’ve got absolutely no practical use for.

All of which makes India by a developing country mile the most annoying place in the world in which to be a tourist. Of course, I’ve never been to Egypt. Or Target the day after Thanksgiving.

One lousy magazine

Chuck Thompson"No" is not in their vocabulary.

In India, the torment is amplified because you can’t even buy things you want without engaging in a mano-a-mano duel of wits and nerve with some street shark who’s far more adept at the game than you.

At a train station in Udaipur, a wild-eyed schemer selling magazines follows Joyce and me like a piranha closing on a pair of guppies. From the instant we climb out of the taxi all the way to the platform he stays with us stride for stride. Through my constant rejection -- first polite, then increasingly belligerent -- his bludgeoning pitch continues for 15 nonstop minutes and includes everything from the unimpeachable standards of Indian journalism to the seven hungry mouths he’s got to feed at home.

We finally shake the guy when we load into our reserved second-class compartment, only to have him burst through the curtain two minutes later and start laying out his entire stock on a bunk, demanding payment for magazines we damaged by forcing him to chase us through the station.

To get rid of him I have to literally push him out of the compartment and off the train -- after agreeing to buy a friggin’ magazine. I know, I’m a chump, but this is the way it happens.

Out of order

I’m not asking for change. India without its army of sleazy, dishonest, pushy merchants would be as lackluster and “safe” as America’s smoke-free bars. I’m just saying, even if they’d actually let you look at the merchandise without crawling into your underwear and telling you it’s the wrong size, you can only take so much abuse from a gang of opportunists whose personal sensitivity ranks just below Phnom Penh cathouse touts.

I grew up in a tourist town. You expect a few rip-offs in these places. “This traditional painting is done on genuine camel bone,” a vendor tells you. Take it out of the wrapper. Tap in on a table. It’s plastic. Fine. But as craftsmen of hustle, the Indians are operating on a completely different metaphysical plane.

A typical, verbatim exchange:

Me (entering restaurant): Is the full menu available?

Waiter: Yes, sir! Please have a seat.

Me (ten minutes later): I’ll have the tandoori chicken and a garlic naan.

Waiter: So sorry, sir, these items are not available because we are not operating the tandoor oven.

I’m not asking for change. India without its army of sleazy, dishonest, pushy merchants would be as lackluster and “safe” as America’s smoke-free bars.

— Chuck Thompson

Me: No naan, either?

Waiter: Yes, sir. Because not busy today.

Me: But you told me the full menu was available. That’s why I asked.

Waiter: Yes, sir.

Me: Could I at least get that beer?

Waiter: So sorry, sir, because we have no license for beer, sir.

Me: Because you have no license for beer, what?

Waiter: Yes, sir.

Me: Because you have no alcohol license you have no beer?

Waiter: Yes, sir.

Me: But when I sat down you took my order for a beer.

Waiter: Yes, sir. One large Kingfisher beer, sir.

Me: But there’s no beer?

Waiter: So sorry, sir. Because we have no license for beer, sir. The beer may come later.

Me: May come later?

Waiter: Yes, sir.

Me: Um, OK, just a mineral water then and the vegetable curry.

Waiter: Yes, sir. I will check on the water.

Twisted pitches

Chuck ThompsonYou will not leave without a rug. Or a fight.

Even in their celebrated holistic arena, Indians’ tenacious sales instinct remains a core attribute.

In the Kerala town of Thekkady, I laid down for one of the region’s famed ayurvedic massage treatments, a blizzard of oils, herbs, and “vein straightening” considered medicinal when submitted to in large, agonizing doses.

On the advice of a reliable contact, I’d sought out a venerated local specialist, an organic, gray-bearded guru with several martial arts degrees and thirty years of experience rubbing people down before twisting them around like an antler. Ten minutes into the session, with bamboo flutes, burbling water, barking dogs, and fighting children in the background, the visionary master launched the up-sell.

“Best ayurvedic program is seven-day course,” he said while wrenching my shoulder into a position best known to orthopedic surgeons and NFL linebackers on the disabled list. “You do seven-day course you are new man.”

“I’m leaving Thekkady the day after tomorrow.”

“Perfect! Two-day course is even better. You come back tomorrow. Eleven o’ clock, first appointment of morning is best. I give special price.”

The shocking low point came after the massage when the guru climbed naked into the shower with me to wash my back and me having no small difficulty convincing him to leave. People ask all the time if I make this stuff up and the answer is, “No.”

I stumbled away reeking of cumin and lemon furniture polish -- an all-natural potion, the guru assured me, though I’m certain Dow Chemicals was involved -- with no further commitments, financial or otherwise. Even nude and soapy, you have to remain resilient in the face of the Indo hard sell.

Delhi dealer

The most instructive retail lesson comes in a dingy textiles shop in Delhi -- everything from elephant-embroidered eye pillows to elephant-embroidered shoulder bags -- where I watch a middle-aged French couple in matching faux-leopard-skin outfits attempt to drive a hard bargain with the equally intense owner, a tall, skinny guy with watery eyes and a mouthful of canine teeth.

Chuck ThompsonChuck Thompson's previous book was 'Smile When You're Lying,' published in 2007.The French want ten elephant-embroidered baskets for 30 euros, exactly one-third the asking price. They really don’t want to budge from their “We’re volume buyers, you will meet our price” position, but with Broadway exasperation the French woman finally slams a 50-euro note on the counter and huffs, “Last offer. You take 50 euros, we take all the baskets.”

The French woman appears to believe that 50 euros will feed all of Delhi for a week, but the owner still wants his 90 euros and the couple eventually storms off in a cloud of disgust.

As the climax of this petty drama is being reached, a gaunt, unshaven Brit, the same form of post-colonial ghost you see all over Asia, wanders into the shop with his two cents.

“You’re a poor negotiator, Dabi,” the Brit reprimands the owner. “Your starting price is too high.”

“The price is clearly marked on each item,” Dabi replies. “If they don’t like my price, don’t buy.”

“Yes, but your price is five times what it costs anywhere else. It’s a rip-off.”

“People who are smart enough not to be ripped off should be smart enough to avoid my shop. There is no sense getting angry about it.”