Travel Scams II, Part 1

Above: The most famous of the pink structures in the Pink City of Jaipur.

This is a story that is split into two separate posts. It describes an encounter we had with a block-printing factory in Jaipur, and our attempt to figure out as we went along whether or not we were being scammed or at a legitimate operation. It’s written with an eye for reader participation; where at key juncture we present you with the pros and cons and let you guess as we go along what’s really happening. Given its length, it’s probably not a good read over your phone on a commute, if you have something really important to do right now, or if you just can’t stand to read blog posts that run well over a page. We think the post is really fun and interesting (if long winded). Hope you enjoy!

Taken the following day at the Jaipur Fort in the mirror room

Jaipur was our second stop on our north India trip with Tori. We were excited to see the city, which is reputed for its fort (like, apparently, all major cities in Rajasthan) and its pink architecture. We arrived on a late train journey from Agra on January 6th, and on the morning of the 7th, slept in, did some laundry, and in early afternoon finally made our way downtown to walk around.

As it turns out, Jaipur’s not so much of a pink city as a dirty salmon city. I found the famed architecture to be fairly underwhelming, but we decided to spend a few hours strolling around and perhaps going to a museum. After we’d been walking on the dusty streets for an hour or so, harangued constantly by the noise, busy streets, and aggressive vendors, we were approached by a friendly young guy who decided to walk next to Andrew and ask curiously where we were from and what we were doing in Jaipur. Andrew good naturedly talked back, and after a block or so our companion had to depart in a different direction, but peeled off from us in front of a local Hindu temple, offering that the temple staff offered free tours if we were interested. We thanked him and he walked off.

At the front gate of the temple was another friendly temple custodian who offered to show us inside. Why not? Could be fun and it would be nice to retreat from the street for a bit. He told us a bit about the temple’s purpose (a temple to lord Shiva) and showed us onto a second level balcony, where he had massive quantities of pakoras (fried vegetable clusters) and dal (lentil stew) prepared in drum-sized pots. The food was apparently for a festival they were hosting that day for the other Hindu temples in the city, and we were welcome to come back later to join in if we desired.

We then went to visit the upper balcony of the temple, which had a moderate view of the street below. Temple Man chatted with us about where we were from, how long we were in Jaipur, someone he knows in Boston, his role at the temple, and the need to be careful when negotiating with tuk tuk drivers (very true!) because a lot of them quote super inflated prices to tourists. After ten minutes or so, when we were about to leave, he mentioned as an aside that there was a government-run factory shop he knew of just outside of the downtown area, and that if we were going to do some shopping, this was a reputed and worthwhile shop to check out because they outsourced all their embroidery work to widows in rural areas. If we wanted, he’d be willing to give a tuk tuk guy directions and tell us how much to pay so we wouldn’t get cheated. Were we interested, perhaps? Or was this a wily tourist trap with Temple Man getting a kickback?

DECISION POINT #1: Would you let the Temple Man help you get a tuk tuk to the block printing factory? Here’s the argument for both sides.

Consent to being put in a tuk tuk:

  • We’ve learned that it’s not fair to be suspicious of everyone who is friendly to us. Andrew and I had met several people in India who were genuinely curious about us and looking to chat and/or explain something about their country or the site we were visiting. This is very common in India.
  • Souvenir shopping would be fun, and we could always choose not to buy
  •  The HUGE pot of pakoras! Like as big as a snow saucer and piled high. If the temple man isn’t genuine and hospitable, why does he have such an insane amount of food sitting around for a festival that isn't happening? Who cooks a bathtub sized pot of dal just to win the trust of tourists? We have heard about big dinners open to anyone at temples such as he described.
  • Indians care about the welfare of rural women just as much as anyone else. It’s plausible that he’s a genuine supporter of this shop and feels good sending them business.
  • Employment for rural/impoverished women through handicrafts and fabric production is a common pro-poor business model I’ve seen done well in lots of countries. It’s not a made up thing.

Politely decline and walk away:

  • It’s too good to be true. Although it gets quite wearying, always be suspicious of people who are too friendly to foreign tourists. Especially in India.
  • The way that man #1 started talking to us and dropped us of riiiiight at the temple with the man waiting could totally have been orchestrated. And why do both gentlemen have such smooth English anyway?
  • By giving us a tour, temple man gets us out and away from the busy street so he can schmooze with us and win our confidence before suggesting the shop. Brilliant idea, smoothly orchestrated.

What do you think we should do?

The famous fort outside of Jaipur

We decided to go for it. Shopping sounded fun to me, the opportunity to support employment for local women could be great, and the pakora Argument honestly felt very legitimizing of the Temple Man’s trustworthiness. So he quickly led out the temple door (too eagerly?, I wondered, noticing his hustle) to the line of tuk tuks and gave instructions to the driver about where to take us. Along the ride, we talked further. Yeah, this could be a scam, but if it is there is little loss to us because we’ll just leave. If it is the real deal, then we’ll have a fun afternoon and maybe buy something we like. Let’s just go in with our eyes and ears open.

One of the gates to the Pink City in Jaipur

Once we arrived at the factory, we were met by a friendly guide in business casual slacks and a button-down who welcomed us to the location and offered us a factory tour followed by the opportunity for some shopping. I asked shrewdly if accepting the tour meant we had to buy anything and he smiled no. He then said that as the shop was government sponsored, his pay wasn’t commission based and there was no pressure to buy. This sounded good to us so we consented to a tour.

First we were shown how block printing was done. Our guide took a piece of wood with an elephant shape carved into a stamp on the bottom and dipped it in various colors of vegetable dye to make a print. There were two other long tables set up for the print making, but the workers were off at lunch. Then in the room next door, we saw two dying machines at work, heated underneath by a lit fire to boil the dye water. Finally, we were shown huge swaths of grey fabric hanging up to dry.

Our tour guide was friendly, confident, informative, and professional and spoke at length about the factory’s history and operations. He also said because of their small facilities at this location, a larger percentage of their dying and print making was done off site and then the embroidery work was outsourced to widows in rural areas who were otherwise cut out of the labor force. The tour was accompanied by a detailed explanation about the number of employees and families supported by the business. We also learned that because the factory is government subsidized, there is no pressure on visitors to make purchases since salaries are not commission based.

DECISION POINT #2: Would you continue to the upstairs levels for shopping?

Reasons to Continue

  • The tour was extremely informative about all aspects of the operation. It feels good to buy when you know how and where something is made
  • We saw actual dying machines at work, fresh fabric being hung up….seems a lot of work if it was just to get us to buy fake stuff. Andrew also had seen dying machines in a documentary once and the ones here appeared to be legitimate.
  • Supporting so many employees, including impoverished women, is a good thing.
  • Super professional guide, not pushy at all, seems like a good and trustworthy guy to buy from. In northern India we were constantly harangued by the most aggressive street vendors I’ve ever experienced. We could hardly walk 10 feet down the streets in Jaipur without pushy salesmen talking at us and shoving products in our face. It really wears you down emotionally… being in a shop where we were treated respectfully felt amazing and made us want to buy.

Reasons Not to Continue

  • All the reasons from the last decision point
  • I guess the factory setup could all be part of a super, super elaborate scam that someone invested a lot of time and money into
  • The block-printing factory workers weren’t around….but it was actually around lunch time so who knows
  • The factory was kind of small? Hard to judge not knowing much about fabric operations
  • Everything still feels very smooth… too smooth?

Got your answer? PART II of this story will be released in just a couple of days. :-)

Also taken the following day at the Jaipur Fort.