Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 14: Shopping)

The travel challenges of a Not-a-Shop-A-Holic

I am not a good shopper at the best of times. I dither and dither and then make impetuous decisions that I later regret. As a result, I often need to take back things I’ve bought.

I don’t like returning things, either – especially to smaller stores. Returning something requires me to summon all of my courage because I feel as though taking something back to a store is tantamount to criticizing one of the salesperson’s offspring, or at least impugning his or her tastes. I therefore usually end up buying something else I don’t want while I’m there, just to cheer up him or her. Logically I know that the salesperson is an employee of the store and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the fact that the handbag I’m returning turned out to be too small for my purposes, but for me, logic has nothing to do with the shopping experience.

In short, I am the Ultimate Non-Shopaholic – and that is true even in a country where the prices of things are clearly marked, where I have time to think about what I’m doing, and where the staff speak the same language I do and are generally nowhere to be found (which is just where I like them). It turns out that I am much worse at shopping in foreign countries where I need to bargain about prices with salesclerks who hover and hover and respond to the words “No, thank you,” by bringing out a dozen other things they are sure I’ll want to look at – salesclerks who implore customers who walk away empty-handed by saying, “You come back tomorrow, Lady?” and when you answer, “Yes, tomorrow,” respond, as though their hearts will break, “You promise?”

After my trip to India (and yes. It’s true: I do have the nerve to travel by myself half way around the world to see a country I’ve never been to, but not the courage to return a leaking mug to Starbucks. Go figure), I have decided that I am never again going to try to bring anything back from anywhere with me. I have learned my lessons. I think.

The Albatross

As those of you who have been reading earlier posts will know, my first shopping misadventure in India occurred in Jaipur, where I was not intending to buy anything at all. But the tuk-tuk driver who took me to the Amber Fort, which I ended up accidentally climbing past in favour of the Jaigarh Fort, thereby totally wearing myself out, was a very good guy. First he told me how to avoid being ripped off by other drivers and souvenir sellers. Then he waited for me even though I was gone for at least three hours, and he didn’t charge me any extra for the wait. In short, I was as grateful to him by the end of my adventure, which had been undertaken for the most part in hot sun, without water, and on an upward incline, as I would have been if he’d just donated his left kidney to me. And all the dear man asked in return was that I spend fifteen minutes looking at the goods his friend sold. How could I refuse?

He drove me to a textile shop, a really classy place, where the vendor served me chai masala and showed me how the textile makers put vegetable dye marks on fabric and how they wove rugs– and then showed me around his massive showroom.

I felt no pressure as the owner showed me bedspread after bedspread, starting with the cheapest one first, asking his assistant to fling open one after another of increasing quality and opulence atop its predecessor. I worried about how they could ever sell all the fabrics that they had on display there: walls and walls of shelves full of folded beautiful fabrics. I fell in love with everything he showed me, and—thinking of all the people who had had to work so hard for mere pennies a day to create these lovely pieces (true, although on reflection I doubt any of them was related to the owner)–I did not negotiate much.

I bought a beautiful bedspread with hundreds of tiny reflective spangles, each one sewn in separately, and a spectacular wall hanging pieced together by hand from stiff pieces of aged fabric to create the image of an elephant – in my favourite colours, deep red and green. It is true that these items would have cost much more in Canada, if they were available here—but they might have cost far less in any other store in India, and could have cost even less if I had offered less. In addition, I was on a budget and could not afford them, even at the prices I paid. So although I was delighted with my purchases as the vendor had them plastic-wrapped and taped and then sewn into a cotton sack for me so I could ship them home, by the time I got back to my hotel I was feeling guilty. That’s why I called the sack “The Albatross “– because of my guilt (which was, admittedly, slightly smaller than that endured by the Ancient Mariner, as were the repercussions) and embarrassment that I had not argued for a better price. With further echoes of Coleridge, since it was at least a week before I found a post office to mail the package from, I had to drag this 6.7 kg reminder of my shopping stupidity around with me everywhere I went.

Souvenir Shopping

When I finally did divest myself of The Albatross in Mumbai, I still faced other shopping obligations, which I’d need to do in Goa.

It wasn’t a long list. I wanted to get a few souvenirs for my kids and grandkids and a couple of small things for myself. But having avoided shops everywhere else I went in India, I’d left souvenir shopping to the last minute,  and that was a mistake.  By then I had perfected the skill of avoiding the pleading eyes and  the hawking calls of shop-owners who came out in the street to try to draw me in by telling me of the remarkable quality and range of wares they had on sale, and who were not easily discouraged by any word except “Tomorrow.” On the day when I was carrying The Albatross back from the post office to my hotel in Udaipur, after finding that the post office was closed on Sunday, even then retailer after retailer begged me to stop and shop with them as I struggled down the street. I indicated my arms and my burden – “How could I carry any more?” I asked them, but they just smiled and said, “Okay, then. You come back tomorrow. You promise.” (They were friendly. All of them were friendly. But they were hard to refuse.)

(I had also been taught my lesson about crafty sales pitches for a second time in Udaipur when a friendly man at the Jagdish Temple invited me to see his art school [he was small. I could have squashed him. Stop worrying, my sons] and I learned it was another store front—this time for expensive works of art. This time after looking at the wares in his classy little store, I just said “No, thanks,” and left.)

The upshot was that I knew I would actually have to look a vendor in the eye if I were going to get any shopping done, and I would need to actually enter a shop of my own free will. I chose my shop by skimming my eyes across the available alternatives along the main street of Calangute, as though I weren’t actually interested in any of them. Once I stepped inside, I knew I would be sunk.

And I was. I either picked the wrong shop or there were no right shops anywhere because once I got in there, there was nothing I wanted, and yet I bought and bought and bought. T-shirts. Handbags. Leggings. A dress or two. The kitchen sink. I knew the same things were available elsewhere, and I knew I should not pay more than half of what the shopkeeper was asking, and I even wondered if maybe some of the things I was looking at might not be for sale back in Toronto. But it was all so cheap that I filled my backpack and did not dicker very much because the woman had so much less than I do (another kind of guilt that comes into play when shopping in places like India), and then when I got back to my room I realized that most of the clothes I’d purchased for myself were never going to fit me because I’m twice the size of your average Indian woman, and so most of it was heading for the Goodwill. Also, by then I was hot and aggravated. I’d spent about $30 on about $5 worth of salvageable merchandise that would have cost me hundreds in Canada except that I’d never have bought it in Canada. I’d have honestly been happier (much happier) if I had been able to just give the $30 to the woman who sold me all these things, without having to actually take any of her products away with me.

So that was that.

Resolutions for Future Travels

Next time I go travelling, I am going to relieve the pressure on myself by purchasing only postcards.

At least that’s what I think now. Because the problem is that now it has arrived, I’m pretty happy with the bedspread and the wall hanging. And I find myself quite attached to a small carved wood Ganesh that I bought at a five-and-dime type place for about 25 rupees (50 cents). The kids seem to like the tea I gave them. And if I hadn’t gone into any stores at all, I wouldn’t have those things, either.

The funny thing is that I had promised my children I would bring them back each an elephant from India to put in their living rooms so they could have something not to talk about. The central image on my wall hanging, when I finally find a living room large enough to hang it in, is going to make me laugh.

This is what my wall hanging looks like, but the colours on mine are quite different (see below). I took this photo of a similar hanging after mine was already wrapped. Now all I need is the right wall.

Inner wrapping, Albatross

Unwrapping The Albatross

Bedspread

Detail: Wall hanging

A portion of my elephant wall hanging

4 responses to “Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 14: Shopping)

  1. I have tears of laughter running down my face over this post Mary.I could imagine the whole scene.Thanks for a wonderful laugh.The bed spread and wall hanging are really gorgeous. Ruth.

  2. Mary W. Walters

    Thank you Ruth (you will be able to imagine it better than most, having travelled with me), and thanks for all the hearts, Ellen. 🙂

  3. Yes, a hilarious post. Once you are in one of those shops it is very hard to leave without either buying something, or feeling bad about not doing so.

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