It was out of obligation that I boarded the planes and trains south again after Kashmir. Having already experienced the world of sticky, smelly, trash-ridden India last year in Chennai, I intended this trip to the Subcontinent to be dedicated to the mountains. And having already satiated that new dream to see monster peaks and smell thin, pure air, I left Srinagar to return to Delhi, which had miraculously become a habitable environment since my last visit. If you recall, upon my first day or two in the country, I jumped from restaurant to rooftop eatery for AC and air flow needs, avoiding the unbearable temperatures in conjunction with sky high humidity. This time, not just dusk brought peaceful climates, though the city still remained a feces-heaped jungle gym. After running from my taxi driver to avoid his supposed scams, I went immediately to revisit my Kashmir boys, all of whom by this time of evening had already abandoned their daily work duties to pursue the enjoyment that keeps them gleeful in a city that would rape even Barney of his pleasant demeanor. They all began to congregate at the travel agency of Ashika, ready to spend their daily earnings on drinks at the swanky bar across the street. When I rolled up, the boys and I spent a quick moment talking about my recent adventure and what my plans were from that moment on. They offered to help me find a better hostel than I was aiming towards, with my mind clenched on pinching pennies and staying in a $2 roach infestation, and eventually this help led to yet another invitation to stay at their abode for a few nights. I was grateful and prepared for more untainted Indian fun. I dropped my bags at the agency, and we took off on the main backpacker drag to get some chai and see Mudi, my friend-by-chance from the bread stand. Delhi and the Pahar Ganj area suddenly seemed unthreatening and downright welcoming. It felt like a home base where I had friends to come back to, all whom understood my humor and wanted me to feel comfortable. Sitting over chais, Mudi demanded that I visit his shop and purchase something special from his selection of top quality Kashmiri crafts. I had no intention of spending money post-wallet gouging trek through the mountains, but I humored him as, I guess, a thank you for all his help with my previous two weeks of travel.
Ashika sat in the corner texting until boredom sent him a-wandering, I leaned back on a pile of wall hangings, and Mudi employed himself and a friend to display the many works of woven art that stacked his walls with color. As if chai not only wakes you up and creates a friendly, social atmosphere, I suppose they believe it also lubricates the wheels of commerce, since he called in for two more rounds of the milky tea as I scratched my chin saying, "I don't need rugs, and I have NO ROOM in my darned backpack." A young boy arrived both times at the door with cone shaped cups filled with the muddy stimulant suspended in a wire contraption for doorstep delivery. Mudi refused to let this potential sale slip past him and was determined to send me away with something gorgeous and score himself a few rupees as well. As the floor quickly layered with piece after piece of handmade tapestries, I imagined all the numerous carpets and rugs that adorned the floors of my Indianapolis home, all bound for the Clark children when our parents downsized. Since I've come to enjoy bringing home bigger items than small, I said "nay" to the small trinkets and focused on the prize of an area rug for my future domicile. Realizing there were a few I liked, even one that "called to me," I began the timeless art of flexing my hidden haggling muscles.
After numerous markets in Europe, relentless salesmen in Africa, and the insistent beggars, poachers, hustlers, businessmen, and little children in India, I was, at this point, a champion negotiator. One of the many cultural differences between most of the world and America is this sport of haggling, where vendors take advantage of the language barrier or their sometimes cheaply-made yet memorable souvenirs to gouge tourists in an evasive attack of the stamina. Upon first coming to a foreign land, one can only assume they are completely ignorant to the mindset, customs, yadda yadda yadda…of that country; therefore, they don't engage in the verbal struggle for goods and money in efforts to not upset or be insensitive to whatever of that which they are unaware. Once said traveler becomes aware of the local scams, the daily rituals of the inhabitants, and the ways of commerce in those parts, it becomes a test of the travel skills, a "Do you have what it takes" challenge to prove your competence and adaptability as a global nomad.
By this time in my trip, I had said "no" to possibly hundreds of salespeople on most continents, and knowing how people respond to your rejection gives you the knowledge of how to get what you want for the bottom price. Yes, these people make their living on marginal profits every day, and the occasional traveler's first price cave-in can mean the world to a struggling vendor…but if I made the act of acquiescing to every dishonest sales attempt my charitable deed for the entire trip…I wouldn't have made it out of Europe with a positive debit balance. And yes, these people do this every day, especially those that line the tourist districts, and their expertise on price-gouging is often unmatched; but there's a level of respect that can be gained by these vendors toward tourists who have the resolve to be a part of the game.
"Mudi, I don't need rugs! I only want maybe one…that silk one is really nice." "Do you like the geometric designs better than the floral ones?," he said as he and his partner held up different motifs, making a pile of the rugs I didn't hate for a possible purchase. "But, guys, I don't need that huge size…I just- - -I like the darker florals, I guess." "What about this one…I know you like this…Ok, I'll put it to the side. How about this 6 x 9 foot one. This is the best price you can get anywhere in the world. My Dad made these rugs…no middle man here…you can even sell this when you get home…make a big profit! Maybe you should be an importer!" "Ha, I don’t know if that's my niche. How much for all these together?" "Three rugs and the wall hanging?," he taps on his chin and then the calculator. "No, not the wall hanging…I already have one." "You want this one, I know you do. It's too beautiful. You have to take it."
A round of "yes's" and "no's" resonate around the room. I prevail.
"Alright, this is the final price…for all three rugs, and if you get all three, including the big one, I'll take care of the shipping myself." "What if I don't want the big one?" "Then it will be much more expensive per item and shipping won't be included."
Some chatty minutes passed. Some silent minutes loomed. We struck a deal, and I crawled on my hands and knees on top of my new rugs, all piled on top of the tens of rugs I rejected. Mudi took care of the payment with my withered MasterCard at his friend's machine, as I enjoyed top quality fibers under my dirty body. Sitting there with a chai in stocking feet, I envisioned the room this rug would next occupy. I was making plans for a bedroom I had yet to find and a life that swirled in the abyss of time after this voyage's completion. Plans of the future were yet to be determined, and it was thrilling to know all my options hung on those that would or could encounter me abroad. Wherever those plans took me, though, I knew at the end of the night, I would end my evenings walking across the rug underneath me on the way to my future bed.
When the sale was wrapped, we reconvened with the boys at the bar, where Mudi revealed that he had lost some serious money in the deal he struck with me, unaware that shipping the personal parcel would cost a load. Part of me felt a little guilty, but I responded with an evil smile that he found amusing. After some beers and Indian appetizers, we piled our bodies and my backpacks onto a cycle rickshaw and traversed the main chowk (busy street) to reach their apartment. Time lapsed between our arrival and dinner time with the viewing of Indian game shows and what seemed like bad reality TV. It's everywhere; you can't escape it. The entire world is mesmerized by watching their fellow man embarrass themselves on TV. Ah, the global common denominator audience…it doesn’t take much to entertain us these days. Mudi presented us with a freshly prepared meal of rice, spiced chicken curry, and the additional green concoction that often appears on an Indian meal platter…ingredients or origin of the mixture unknown. Even though I chose to top my mound of rice with meatless curry sauce, the boys selected the choicest pieces of flesh and bone to throw on my plate. Hospitality was an innate sense for them that required no thought . My lips tingled from the chili and fingers were stained yellow from the rest of the florescent spices. I had a gorgeous night of sleep, finally out of tundra cold and harm's way, and after their insisted remarks, I vowed to stay one more day in Delhi before leaving on a train towards the big Taj and a, once again, lonely India.