Kashmiri Tour Agents

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The Kashmiris were rather unhappy when we decided not to use their travel booking services. Indeed, by the time we rolled off Main Bazaar, it had escalated to the point of outright hostility.

It started with guilt trips. The tour-wallah caught and interrogated me as we walked down Main Bazaar with my brother. “Why you not let me try?” he said, concluding that I hadn’t gotten a deal much better than what he had offered us, “I could have done everything he did for you.”

“Sorry,” I said, “But we appreciated the fact that they gave us a little more…detail.”

This was true. The Kashmiri had scrawled our itinerary out on the top quarter of a piece of paper. At India Travel Consultant, they printed out a whole itinerary for us.

“I could have given you that!” he protested.

“Maybe next time.” I excused myself from the awkward situation by motioning that Jon, Sarah and Steve had continued without me, and I needed to catch up.

We had been hoping to avoid this confrontation, but unfortunately, it turns out that the people who pull you in off the streets to give you a quote are just as willing to hound you down to evaluate your decision. We didn’t want to tell him that his pushiness had made us a little uneasy to begin with, and that our (American) expectations caused us to experience his whole operation as a bit seedy.

We didn’t want to let on that the primary reason we had decided against Main Bazaar tour agents was our trip to the (real) Government Tourist Office. “No one approved on Main Bazaar,” the official told us, “It is not possible to be approved in that area.” In other words, this particular tour agent’s “official” credentials were considerably less sound than he had led us to believe.

There just really isn’t a polite way to tell someone that you don’t find them trustworthy. And, as mother always says, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

But apparently this isn’t a proverb in Kashmir. “This man is a liar,” our would-be tour agent told another Kashmiri, purposely in our earshot. He got a couple of buddies in on it, too. “Liar! Liar!” they called out, as we walked by. As our taxi left for Jaipur, we were sent off by a loud exclamation of “Shitty Americans” from another Kashmiri.

We wanted to confront the issue before we left town. The Kashmiris seem kind of like the mafia of Main Bazaar—they are the educated, rich, organized, and cunning elite of a second-rate and somewhat lawless area.

After lengthy deliberation with my family, my father and I hit the streets to look for him. We weren’t quite sure what we were going to say. Besides being confident that conversation is better than name-calling (and that name-calling isn’t good in any case) we weren’t quite sure where our discussion would lead us. And, if worse came to worse, we were armed with the knowledge that his credentials were significantly overstated.

For better or for worse, that particular Kashimri and his friends had packed up and gone home for the evening. But as we discussed our next step, we managed to attract the attention of another Kashmiri whose tour we did not purchase. After initially polite overtones, the conversation quickly turned sour.

“We wanted to go with something more…established,” I told him. “My parents were really concerned that we went with a government-approved agent.”

“F-ing Americans,” he replied, “You are all the same.” He wheeled around and slunk away, wishing to offer no further explanation.

“Hey now!” my father called with authority, “That’s not fair!”

The man came back, still steaming, not particularly interested in hearing our side of the story. His ranting didn’t seem to change anything, but at least it gave us some insight into why these Kashmiris were so angry at us.

It was, at the very least, an educational experience.

We had apparently committed a cultural faux-pas in saying “I’ll get back to you,” but meaning, “I’ll get back to you if we decide to use your services.” We do this all the time in the US; indeed, it’s basically expected. It hadn’t even crossed our minds that this could be considered rude, much less did we consider it to be dishonest.

“Americans lie,” the Kashmiri told us, “They always say they will come back, but they never do. Not one! The Britishers, the Germans, they come back, but never an American.”

We’ve concluded, in retrospect, that this is indeed rude. It’s better to be clear, forthright, and follow-through in conversations, even short-term business arrangements. Even if the cultural expectation don’t require follow-through, it is still the better thing to do. We’ll try to be more thoughtful about it in the future— and especially careful while we’re in India.

The Kashmiris are furthermore offended by the existence of “official” government tourist entities, and particularly peeved that we would lend credence to their rubber stamp. “Who is the government?” he said, “It is you and me! It is up to me whether I choose to do good or to do evil. Government approval means nothing. Americans are so suspicious.”

In one sense, this is true: we don’t have any real guarantee that the Indian Government is going to take better care of us than Joe Kashmiri from Main Bazaar. Indeed, if entrance fees at national monuments and government shops are any indication, the Indian government is committed to making foreigners pay more. But still, as Americans, we are inclined to look for and trust these kinds of assurances, even if the Joe Kashmiri agencies would charge less and probably work out just fine. The government, at very least, will be relating with foreigners for a long time. For all we know, Mr. Kashmiri might be buying us a one way ticket into the Rajasthani deserts so that he can offer us a return trip at twice the price.

In any case, whatever cultural expectations we trespassed and whatever offenses we committed, it is disheartening to receive so little grace from our hosts. Sarah and I spend so much psychological energy rationalizing concerning encounters, offenses, and outright lies hoisted upon us by our daily encounters. As visitors, we know we have a responsibility to learn the culture and expectations of our hosts. But if you are going to be working with foreign tourists, don’t you have some responsibility to understand their culture? Or at least the capacity to forgive well-meaning mistakes?

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