Travel Scams II, Part 2

Note: This blog post picks up directly where the last one left off. If you have not read Travel Scams II, Part 1, please go back and do so before continuing here.

A tuk-tuk await on the street in Jaipur

After the tour, we felt very reassured that the factory was legitimate and decided to go look at some products. Usually we never buy more than postcards, but because Tori was with us and had extra space in her bag, we had a rare chance to send her back to the US with something larger if we desired souvenirs. The factory’s upper floors were all sales rooms with sections for bed covers, table cloths, curtains, bags, pillows and clothing, including custom dresses and suits. I asked to start with tablecloths. We were offered tea and coffee (Andrew accepted the latter, which ended up tasting like sludge) and then were led to a couch in the middle of the room to sit.

One by one, our guide and his assistant laid out large cuts of fabric of different qualities, ranging from about $10 USD for some thin cotton block prints to some very heavy and labor intensive fabrics for almost $100, though all prices were quoted in rupees. Some of the materials were really quite beautiful, and we got to feel each one carefully in our hands to judge the quality while hearing about its origins. It was really fun looking at all the colors and options, and there was a wide selection.

The guide rattled on about well-known international brands that all purchased from their warehouse. He also mentioned that the factory was listed in our Lonely Planet guide. I pulled out my Kindle on the sly to check the guidebook as he was busy folding and opening fabrics to see if it was actually listed. I couldn’t find it in the Lonely Planet. After this I asked the guide for a business card, and he said he didn’t have any on hand but could grab me one downstairs later.

Meanwhile, we kept sifting through the options. The animal block prints were our favorite, and they had rich dyed colors with elaborate patterns of elephants, camels, and flowers. Among the super high end stuff was an elephant quilt made from cuts of different shiny fabrics, and we were told that they were made from pieces of old wedding sarees.

We were also told that there was subsidized shipping, so the cost of sending something back to the US would be only about $8 USD. There were even some sample packages ready for shipping over in the corner with US addresses that we were shown, and the assistant hurried over to hold up the packages for us to see.

Andrew and I eventually picked out one of the lower-end table cloths for about $20 that had vibrant red and orange block printing, perfect for a fall table setting. It felt good to know we’d have something from our trip a little nicer than the T-shirts we’d bought on the road.

With our tablecloth selected, we set it aside to choose which shopping section to visit next. The guide recommended looking at suits for Andrew. Andrew and I had actually previously discussed wanting to buy him a tailored suit on the road, and this looked like it might be a good opportunity. Andrew was nervous though because he hadn’t yet done his full research about how and what to buy. The guide said that the turnaround time was very quick, and that after taking Andrew’s measurements, we could have the suit delivered later that day or early the next and if it wasn’t just right, the factory would be able to make the adjustments in only a few hours before we left town. We whispered together quickly, not sure if we should take this opportunity in our unprepared state.

DECISION POINT #3: What would you do at this point? Would you go suit shopping?

Run for the Hills

  • Wedding saris? Selling fabric to Calvin Klein? Yeah, right.
  • Those “shipping boxes” in the corner could totally be stage props to make buyers feel confident. Almost free shipping sounds too good to be true.
  • Nothing in the Lonely Planet about this shop as claimed and the guy couldn’t produce a legitimate business card right away.
  • We really haven’t done research on suit-buying. Doing something that costly on an impulse could end really badly.

Keep Shopping

  • Lots of people exaggerate about their products, and the sales guy still wasn’t being overly pushy. As long as we don’t buy the expensive “wedding sari quilts,” it’s no big deal.
  • The Lonely Planet can be tricky to navigate on Kindle, and it’s not uncommon that it takes us a while to find something we’re looking for based on how the page links work. Also it could have been in another edition.
  • It’s easy to make a fake business card, so not having one on hand doesn’t mean much
  • We’re always going to feel unprepared with making a big purchase like a suit overseas. We should just go for it and do our best - Andrew knows the cut and color to look for.
  • Looking at tablecloths was really fun and the sales guy is being refreshingly hospitable. There’s no reason to not to at least see what the suit department is like.

Third Option……..? (Think creatively)

The fort outside of town featured elephants that would carry visitors from their roadside drop off up the hill to the fort. After our visit to the elephant sanctuary in Thailand, we made a decision that we did not want to support elephant use of this type and walked up the hill ourselves.

In this case, Andrew intelligently decided to ask our host if the building had wifi (it did) and if he could share the password (he did). Andrew snuck downstairs to use the bathroom and also look up suit buying using our smart phone in order to decide if it was a good idea. Meanwhile Tori and I went up to look at shirts for her.

About 30 minutes later, we had picked out a new satiny shirt for Tori (that looked very flattering) and Andrew re-emerged upstairs. He had used his wifi time not only too look up a guide on custom suit buying abroad but also to brilliantly look at the Trip Advisor page for the shop, since I had been unable to find verifying information in the Lonely Planet.

Turns out that guy at the Hindu temple had sent previous customers our way - several of whom spent several hundred dollars on custom suit purchases that, ahem, never got delivered. The shop had lots and lots of negative reviews. SCAM BUSTED!

I immediately felt my cheeks burning with self-imposed shame that we had allowed ourselves to be led to the shop in the first place, which was largely at my urging. Andrew and I both take a lot of pride in being super savvy travelers, and it felt a bit like we’d been had.

At the same time, had we? We huddled together while Tori’s shirt was being wrapped and decided what to do. We could walk away now and not purchase the shirt or tablecloth (both had been selected but not paid for) with a net loss of a couple hours but zero rupees into the pocket of our friendly charlatan. Or, we could purchase the items we had already picked out but do no more shopping.

We decided to go ahead with our purchases because, as much as our Trip Advisor discovery made us feel pretty stupid and gullible, we really liked what we picked out, could walk away with our purchases in hand, and didn’t want the whole afternoon to be ruined. To be honest, it had also felt really nice for once to have a shopping experience with a salesperson that was not the least bit pushy. Still, we made our purchases and left quickly.  I also pulled aside another foreign looking couple in the shop to let them know what we found out.

The maharaja who built Jaipur fort once went to China and was impressed by the Great Wall. He made sure that his fort complex was accompanied by a wall of his own.

On the ride back to central Jaipur, we discussed and debated what had really taken place. In the end, it’s a bit of a mystery as to exactly happened. We strongly suspect that it is not a government run business that employs village women and sends all their kids to school. Almost undoubtedly the guy at the temple gets a kickback, and I think it’s that part that makes it the most frustrating and embarrassing to know we were drawn in. Yet the ready-made products that we saw and purchased were fairly nice, though likely not unique, and the “factory” can’t be selling the lower-end stuff that we bought at that much of a price markup. We think that the business is likely hybrid legitimate/illegitimate, selling the lower-end products the same as most businessmen with fabric shops, but selling the “higher-end” products at grossly inflated prices. That, combined with a lucrative business in tailor made clothing that never arrives is likely the meat of the profits, which is why Andrew was encouraged to buy a suit. The bit about helping rural women is almost assuredly made up.

Did we “fall for it”? Kinda, maybe, but we recovered in time that we were in our full faculties in making the final decision to purchase. I’m proud of how we maintained our suspicions, kept our eyes open, and recovered before buying something we couldn’t take home. Also, if you look back at some of our “decision points” up above, so much of the information we had could be interpreted two ways: he’s friendly, is he too friendly? This tour is very informative, does it sound too good to be true?, I’ve seen legitimate women’s cooperative-type businesses in other countries, doesn’t it make a great story then?

I suppose the suspected legitimate/illegitimate nature of the business is maybe an even more authentically Indian experience than a real government sponsored shop supporting rural women, given India’s thriving informal economy and the enthusiasm for counterfeiting popular businesses and products that we’ve observed across the country. Saying that feels like a post-hoc face saving measure though, and I still feel a bit like I have egg on my face. But guess what? We have a great new tablecloth! We think.