Monday, April 9, 2007

Don’t want to be a Fryer.

The next morning Daniel and myself met Aaron and Sandra for breakfast. Our goal for the morning was a simple one: to obtain train tickets to get out of Mangalore and get to Kochi (Cochin) as soon as possible. The first step in this process was to get to the train station. Auto-rickshaws were in abundance, but taxis were far and few between. It wasn’t easy to fit four of us into the back of a rickshaw but we managed. We got to the train station and found the section for reserved tickets. After surviving the general unreserved section the previous evening on the train from Goa to Mangalore, I wasn’t yet ready to take that option again so soon, especially all the way to Kochi, which was an overnight train. Ideally we would get reserved sleeper class, but I was certainly prepared to pay more for a superior class if that was all that was available.

The queue at the reservation counter in Mangalore had a luxury that I did not see anywhere else in India. Instead of having to stand in the queue, they had a series of numbered seats. The seats are arranged in horizontal rows and the numbers snake their way to the front. As one progresses in the queue, one keeps having to get up and move to the next seat; so it’s a lineball decision whether it is more of a luxury or an inconvenience. Unfortunately, after queuing up for sometime in the seated queue, and finally making it to the ticket counter, we discovered that there were no reserved tickets still available for the train that evening, not even in first class. This probably should not have been so unexpected, as it was the Christmas/New Year holiday period, the busiest time of the year for the railways.

Mangalore is a transport hub, and as a tourist, you really don’t want to have to spend more than one night, as there’s not much to do there. We were all determined to get out of Mangalore that evening at the latest. Our next option was to find the appropriate bus station and see if there were any long distance buses we could take. Finding the bus station proved more difficult than we thought it would. My map in the Lonely Planet book showed a number of different bus depots scattered around Mangalore, and we had no idea which one was the one we needed to get to. These bus depots are far more chaotic than the train stations. There are no inquiry desks and no apparent central authority. Rather, they are just a parking lot full of buses either coming, going, or waiting. It was highly frustrating to ask various people around the lot about a bus to Kochi, and get various answers, all of these answers while probably well intended, were nonetheless unhelpful, succeeding only in sending us on a goose-chase. We rickshawed around to the other depots, asking the same question, but getting no closer to finding out what we needed to know. When it became obvious we were not making any progress, I suggested we go to a travel agent and inquire there. “It might cost a bit more, but it’s worth it if we can get out of here sooner rather than later.” Someone remembered seeing a travel agent around the corner from our hotel, so we all squeezed into yet another rickshaw and headed back to the hotel.

For Aaron and Sandra, seeing an Israeli in negotiations with an Indian was a new experience. Aaron tended to have the attitude that whatever things such as a rickshaw ride costed, it was almost nothing in terms of Euros. My own attitudes and behaviour on the matter now lay somewhere in between Daniel’s and Aaron’s. There were certainly many times when I felt like it was worth fighting for the best price, and many other times when I thought: “Who cares in the whole scheme of things – we aren’t exactly dealing with large sums of money here.” I would often see Aaron shake his head and roll his eyes in bewilderment as Daniel, for example, expertly negotiated a rickshaw driver down from 70Rs (US$1.70) to 50 Rs, and then down to a final price of 30Rs (US$0.70).

For me, the main cost of travelling through India (after the airfare to get there) was not the cost of living, which was minimal, but the cost of not working and earning back home. From Daniel’s point of view, he was on a very long trip, taking a year away from work to go around the world. While on each instance it might not be a significant amount of money, eventually it all adds up, especially over a long period of time. For someone just travelling through India for a month or two, it adds up to a less consequential sum than for someone travelling for a year or more.

There was also one other reason for Daniel driving such a hard bargain. On one occasion, Daniel tried to explain to Aaron that it wasn’t just about the money, but it was about one’s esteem in knowing one was not getting totally ripped off. This was part of the national psyche in Israel.

“For Israelis,” Daniel told Aaron “no one likes to be thought of as a …”
“A fryer” I contributed as a third party listening in.
“Yes, in Hebrew we call it a fryer” Daniel continued, “Israelis hate to feel like a fryer, a sucker. This is why Israelis are the best hagglers out of all the foreign travellers in India.”

We got to the travel agent and told him we wanted to get to Kochi as soon as possible. One of the guys working at the travel agent suggested we hire a car, but none of the others seemed to take any notice of that suggestion. We asked the main guy if there were any private-run buses going to Kochi. He made some phone calls, and seemed to be on hold, telling us that he had two tickets available. Aaron and Sandra suggested that Daniel and I take them, but I wasn’t comfortable with that. “No, we all go, or none of us. We’ll find a way.” I told the travel agent that two tickets wasn’t satisfactory, essentially telling him that we needed four tickets or it was no sale. He spoke again to someone on the phone, was on hold for a little bit longer, and then eventually came through with an affirmative for four tickets. It was a great relief, and there were smiles and back slaps all round. We now all had tickets for on an overnight sleeper bus leaving that evening.

With the tickets secured, it was now time to find a place for lunch. Daniel had in his possession some flyer that was adverting a restaurant in a shopping mall and he suggested we all go to check out this great big shopping mall. I humorously ridiculed the idea that there would be a large modern shopping mall anywhere near here.

“A shopping mall? I doubt it? In Colaba, I saw a shop calling itself a supermarket, and it was the size of little corner store. And this was in Colaba, which is far more upmarket and has far more tourists than here.” Sandra laughed also, and was expressing agreement with my opinion, but Daniel insisted that it would be a real shopping mall. I continued with the ridicule.
“What do you think it’s going to be like? The Dizengoff Centre??” I asked sarcastically, enjoying my own humour, and then taking a moment explain to Sandra and Aaron “That’s the biggest shopping centre in Tel Aviv” so they could fully share in my amusement.
“Actually, we have one now that is bigger than that” said Daniel a little curtly, who was not finding the conversation as humorous as the rest of us.

With nothing to really lose, I agreed to go. “It will be worth it just to get there and then see the look on your face when this so called mall turns out to be non-existent…” We got a rickshaw, and showed the driver the advertisement on the flyer, so he’d know where to take us. We had little idea of how far it was, so there wasn’t much negotiation for the price. The journey took us to a totally different part of Mangalore from where we’d been before. To my utter amazement, it turned out that there really was a five storey air-conditioned building that resembled a shopping mall.
“Ah, you see?” said Daniel as we approached.
“I can’t believe there really is a modern shopping complex here! I’m glad to say that on this occasion you were right, and I was wrong!” I offered. Sandra was also shaking her head in amazement and offered a little mea culpa of her own.

As we got out of the rickshaw, we could see that there was a Pizza Hut joint at the front of the mall, one storey up. Daniel and I were keen to check it out. I would never have any reason to go into a Pizza Hut joint in Australia, but I was rather curious to see how this American franchise would manifest itself in India. It was the first time on the trip that I had seen this type of franchise in India. Aaron, however, had a different attitude and plainly refused to even set foot in there. “It’s a terrible company and they cause a lot of harm all over the world.”

“We don’t have to eat there, but I’d like to just check it out, as I am curious to see if or how it is modified for Indian tastes.” I replied.

“No, I don’t mind if you guys eat there, but I personally will never enter a Pizza Hut store.” He didn’t fully elaborate on why he hated the company behind Pizza Hut so much, and I preferred not to ask. I gathered it was probably some anti-imperialist thing. I was too hungry to discuss politics, and it was a non-issue to me.
“Nah, don’t be silly,” I said. “There are plenty of places to eat here. We’ll find a place where we can all eat together”

I soon gathered that the Indians who frequented the mall (and I still saw no other foreigners there) must have been rather well off. The prices in most stores were closer to the prices of things back in Australia than they were to the typically inexpensive Indian market prices I had become accustomed to.

After lunch we decided to split up for the rest of the day, with Daniel and I arranging to meet Aaron and Sandra outside the travel agent that evening, as that was where the bus would be departing from. Daniel and I checked out the mall a bit more, and then we took in a film at the adjoining modern cinema. I would have preferred to see the Indian film “Kabul Express” that was advertised on posters outside the cinema; however, it had not been released yet. Daniel preferred to see the Bollywood film “Dhoom2,” starring the gorgeous Ashiwarya Rai, but I was secretly glad to see that it wasn’t showing at a time for us – I can’t stand musicals. With a limited choice of films, we ended up seeing “The Guardian” with Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher, which was about the US Coastguard rescue swimmers. From what I could tell, most of the audience was made up of middle class Indian students. I thought it was a mediocre film, and I was amazed by how the parts of the movie that seemed so predictable or corny to me were met by expressions of surprise or general positive reaction by the rest of the audience.

After the film, Daniel and I went to a small (but large by Indian standards) supermarket under the mall and stocked up on snacks for the long bus trip that lay ahead of us. We got a rickshaw back to the hotel, had some dinner, fetched our bags from the hotel locker, and then walked up the road to meet Aaron and Sandra outside the travel agent where the bus was to pick us up. When the time came, the bus had still not arrived. The travel agent assured us it was just running late. In India you can never be certain about these things, and it was a relief when it finally did arrive. Kochi, here we come!

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