My criminal friends (India)
My laughter started it. Affable vendors on Dharamsala’s winding streets hawk metal trinkets and colorful scarves and (if the press of Indian reality hasn’t driven you out of your mind) it’s a ton of fun. Plenty of reasons to chuckle. One of mine caught the attention of an Indian man in an immaculate leather coat.
“I like your laugh!” he said. “What are you laughing at?” In a nation with a billion strangers, Indians are quick to make you a friend instead, so it wasn’t long before I knew my new friend Gopa and his two buddies Viky and Ramu were on vacation from Mumbai where they own a shop.
“What do you sell?” I must have asked.
“The things that make women happy and men broke!” It was clearly one of his treasured lines.
“Jewelry?” I guessed, and we chuckled in masculine camaraderie at our lot in life. When he learned that I’d been in town two days, his face lit up.
“Ah, then you must be our tour guide, for we have only arrived today!” I appreciated the whimsically ridiculous suggestion, and told him all I’d found was a chai stand that was open in the early hours when red-robed monks flip-flopped to the Dalai Lama’s temple past street dogs chasing morning motorcycles. “Then you must show us this chai wallah! Can we meet there, at the intersection, tomorrow at 9:00?”
Meeting locals is one of the great opportunities of travel and even though Mumbai wasn’t exactly local, it was close enough. The next morning Ramu was waiting at the intersection. He gave me a minimal greeting then led me up the hill to a veranda that looked out over the misty Kangra Valley morning.
Ramu took the seat at the head of the table but meekly gave way when Gopa arrived a minute later, then brought us chai. Gopa stretched languorously and told me about their late night seducing Australian coeds. I smiled politely but unenthusiastically and he changed tracks. “I am sorry my friend, remind where you are from? Ah yes, Oakland! I love Oakland. Actually, that’s is a coincidence, since I have a very good customer in Oakland. She is a woman. She buys a lot of jewelry and gemstones from us.” His face fell. “Well, I should say, she used to. We have had some problems with our export license. India is a very corrupt place, you know.”
We sipped our chai. Clouds drifted above and below us. Ramu listened to Gopa and watched me. The chai was excellent.
“Yes, it is too bad about our export licenses. You see, it is very hard for us Indians to get these kinds of things out of the country. It is much easier for tourists and travelers like yourself. You can just ship them as souvenirs!” More sipping. “If you were to send them, they would go through right away.” Sip. Ramu brought us another round. “I have just had a thought. If you were to send a box of nice things to yourself, all you would have to do would be meet our friend and give them to her, and she would give you….several hundred US dollars. Eight hundred?” Sip. “We have done this before with other friends and it was always no problem.”
Oh Gopa. Just because I laugh on the street doesn’t mean I’m dazzled, despite not having heard of the jewelry scam before (things “go wrong” after you send the package, it will all be okay, just pay this one little fee, and oh no we need to get you out of the country just to be sure, here is a plane ticket and $500 it will all be okay. But when you land, your bank account is empty and their phones are disconnected).
I don’t know too many scam artists in domestic life. But Gopa was not the first I’ve met on the road. The joys of travel include meeting a wider array of humanity and since I never felt physically endangered it was just an unusual morning with delicious chai and a beautiful view as the trees breathed in the morning mist.
One last thing making it all adorable. Gopa, my earnest scam friend, kept saying “Auckland” instead of “Oakland.” Nothing reveals the lie more than claiming familiarity with a place but putting it on the wrong continent. I love travel. And chai.