I realized early on that I wasn’t the only one enjoying these absolutely magical ancient building. An unfortunate side-effect of tourism is the presence of commission touts, young men trying to steer you away from the hotel, store, or restaurant you want to get to in order to take you to a place of their choice that will give them a commission. It sounds like a trivial incident, but believe me it gets incredibly frustrating when it happens twenty times a day.
Being harassed on the streets of Rajasthan reminded me of my earlier stay in Kerala, another very touristy place with plenty of touts to go around. Except this time, my experience was quite different: The culprit in this case was Firas (not his real name), a young Muslim man who had lived in Kuwait for a few years. After bumping into each other a few times and me politely refusing his offers to go to his multitude of ‘best shop in Kerala’, he made me an interesting proposition in broken Arabic:
“I want to show you my life with my friends, but I don’t have money. If I take farangs to nice souvenir shop, boss gives me Rs. 100 (about 2 dollars). Come with me to the shops. No buy anything, no problem. After we go drink with my friends.”
Of course I was skeptical at first. In such a tourist-trap environment, you have to be wary of ‘propositions’ like these. But I had a few hours to kill, and the worst that could happen was that I waste time looking at what Kerala had to offer in terms of souvenirs. After hopping on his motorcycle, I ask Firas how the fierce shopkeeper will let me leave without buying anything. With a big smile, he answered: “No problem, just say you ask your wife before buying.”
Before I knew it, we were a group of five big guys crammed in a rickshaw at full speed in the narrow streets of historic Fort Cochin. It took me a while to build up the courage to bid farewell to the first store owner by using my non-existent wife as an excuse. Firas gently scolded me on our way out, saying that at this pace we’ll have to split one beer between the five of us. By the third shop, I started really getting into the game, going as far as giving the wife a name. At shop #5, I put a dare to hit up 10 shops for an even Rs. 1,000.
But I was being too ambitious: two shops later my new friends, who had started itching for a drink, decided they had had enough and steered the rickshaw straight to the nearest bar. We had a long and fun night of malealum/arabic/english/hindi conversations, laughing about anything and everything, regardless of whether we understood each other or not. At closing time, I offered to pay – they firmly refused.
Two months later, Firas still drunk-dials me sometimes. It makes me feel special.