Tuesday, 30 July 2013

the artful dodgers.

We have come to our last two days in Asia (indefinitely) so I thought, in the spirit of all things Asian, I would share some of the scams we've fallen victim to, and also some of the ones we were savvy enough to avoid, in the last 5 months in and around the subcontinent. Perhaps for the benefit of others, or just for your amusement...

First, the gem scam. This is the scam where you stand to lose the most and it is prolific in big cities. We were in Colombo only 15 hours and we had two versions of this scam pulled on us. The first was a man sidling up to us in a dirty alleyway, holding out his hand containing some tissue paper and a shiny thing that Will and I both first thought was some type of drug (dingy alleyway and all that). After a second we realised it was a 'gem' and this man, who had not said anything, was trying to sell it to us. We looked at him bemused for a minute, shook our heads and walked off smiling at how clumsy this attempt to rob us was. This was an easy scam to dodge- I am doubtful even the stupidest tourist would ever buy a 'gem' on a whim, from a shifty guy, in an alleyway.
The second attempt was a little more polished. A tuk-tuk driver drove up to us as we sat at the fort, looking out at the darkening ocean, and said "Oh, my friends, I can take you to the gem convention/festival/whatever for only 50 rupees, no problem!" Had we said, "great, fantastic, just what we needed!" we would have been driven to a gem shop somewhere in the middle of nowhere, forced to look at fake and expensive 'jewels' for ages before we could somehow find a way to escape. Luckily we just laughed at him and said we knew he was full of shite. And this is what you must do, without fail, everytime you are approached in Asia by anybody connected to gems. Otherwise it will end with you wasting time at best or spending vast amounts of money on shiny glass at worst. There is no version of the scam where you spend money and come out on top- the best you can do is make the scammer feel like a right git.

And with that, I'll move onto tuk-tuk drivers. After all of our time in Asia these are still the people I would be least likely to trust ever. With anything, for anything, we avoid them at all costs. We would rather walk two kilometres with our backpacks on than get into a tuk-tuk. In fact, after 5 months I think we have used their services less than 20 times, which is quite a remarkable achievement on our part considering they are everywhere, they hound you like crazy and we have moved around a lot.
The reason we have no time for them is that they seem to have a complete aversion to honesty. They will routinely try to charge insane prices for tiny distances, they will try to confuse you when you are figuring out which bus to catch- say, for example, you are checking information in your trusty guidebook they will dance around you clicking, clapping, repeating 'yes! where you go! you need tuktuk!', just anything to get you into their vehicle before you find the bus you are looking for, they will lie and say there is no bus/train/whatever and the only way is tuk-tuk, they will tell you your hotel is too expensive and to come to theirs and at night, if all else fails, they will try to sell you drugs. They are basically distrust personified. Just say no and get on a bus!

Another scam that has been present all over Asia is the 'no money, I just need milk' trick. This is basically any person, mother with child, dodgy toothless man, teenage boy coming up and saying "I don't want any money but buy me milk for my child/sister/etc.". If you agree, as we did the first time this happened to us, they then lead you to a shop and point to powdered milk that is incredibly expensive (think $20-30- in Asia that is heaps) whereupon you have to buy it for them. After you have left they return the milk and get the cash (the shop owner, of course, gets a cut of the profit). A waiter at a restaurant tried this on us the other night (it was a local restaurant, it would never happen in a tourist one)...he spent all evening buttering us up, piling food on the table, being very chatty and giving us discounts, then told us he had to go to a spice market and we could come and see where locals shop. Right then we both knew that we were going to have to escape from him at some stage but for some reason, perhaps inexplicable politeness or a weird urge to see the scam through, we followed him. He, of course, bought nothing, and we, of course, bought nothing (much to the annoyance of the shop owner- he clearly thought his friend had brought a gold mine to his shop), then as we were walking to the bus stop he said "my friend, I don't need money but my daughter needs some milk..." And upon hearing the punchline we both burst into laughter, told him the game was up and left him to his embarrassment in the dark.

The other, lesser and more ubiqitous scams are your basic 'oh you have white skin? Well let me just up the price of this product or service by a few hundred rupees'; the "here let me help you, give me the money and I'll buy that brandy/beer/anything for you...oh no there was no change from that 1000 rupees you gave me" (hint: there was indeed a wad of change, only it is in the scoundrels pocket); there's your "surprise guide attack" whereupon you are brought into a conversation with a 'friendly' local who then leads you around to sights and then demands that you buy something from their shop or just plain give them money (it was to this tune that Will parted with $30 on his first day in Kathmandu). This was tried on us when we were walking up Ella Rock and came to a fork in the path. 'Luckily' for us there was an old man there who told us not to go the way we were, there were dangerous honeybees that way, we should go with him and he'd show us. We told him we had no money and didn't want a guide, he said he was just an old farmer, not guide, no problem...we decided to ignore him though, went our way and surprisingly saw not a hint of a honeybee. What we did see, at the top of the rock, was several other tourists, in the company of 'trusty' old farmers. Hmmm...
Again, this also happens with tuk-tuk drivers..."my friend, only 50 rupees for a tour of the sights" roughly translates to "hey sucker, give me 50 rupees and I'll drive you to a bunch of shops where you'll be bullied into paying too much for stuff you don't want".
And lastly there's the drunken maniacs who come and up grab you, spilling some nonsense about how they remember you from somewhere you've never been before.

We have fallen victim to most of these scams before, it's a bit like an initiation into Asia. But after 3 months in India I think we have become so cynically hardened to anyone who appears even a little untrustworthy that we can now travel through the continent safe in the knowledge that no fool is going to rob us of our dollars. Although, this may be inviting trouble...

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