by Linda Johnsen
Republished from the Kumbha Mela Times
Westerners often get the impression that in the hustle and bustle of India, the hustle predominates. India has some of the most aggressive salespeople in the world, accosting tourists in the streets and even in the hotels on their way to their rooms. Innocent browsing is nearly impossible. If a sales clerk sees your eyes move toward one of his wares, he will begin packing it for you before you have a chance to protest.
Even the holy Ganges isn’t safe from salesmen: as our boat pulled into the river for our tour of Benares’ famous ghats, vendors rowed up along both sides of our little ship, hawking rudraksha beads and metal jars for transporting Ganga water.
A Westerner can scarcely take a step through an urban area in India without being offered incense, bindi marks, meditation beads, even silk saris and Persian rugs. Indian merchants know many Americans and Europeans are inexperienced barterers, and a crafty salesman can make a substantial profit on a Westerner’s naivete. The best way to deal with the unwanted attention of a vendor is to keep walking briskly past him or her, and avoid making eye contact at all costs.
Harder to ignore are the destitute, who crowd around foreign visitors as if we were incarnations of Kubera, the god of wealth. One’s heart goes out to these poor, but trying to help them can cause more problems than it solves. If you pass a few rupees to one beggar, word spreads with telepathic speed, and in moments the unwary tourist can find herself surrounded by literally a hundred tattered poor demanding their share.
Tourists are advised to make donations to organizations that work with the poor rather than trying to dispense rupees to beggars individually. It is particularly important to resist the temptation to pass a few coins to child beggars. This only encourages their parents to keep them out of school, dooming them to a lifetime of hustling out on the street.
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