i thought i was heading to mysore to take a break from the mayhem of bangalore. i was wrong.
true, mysore is smaller, less crowded (but still crowded), and the air is a bit more breathable. it's possible to cross the street fairly easily. sometimes there's even a traffic cop to help you along. on the other hand, wherever you look you see men urinating on a wall or through a fence or into a gutter. sacred cows are everywhere, and so is their shit. so much of the city reaks of cow shit and man piss. there is a lot of pleasant looking green space, but most of it is fenced off, probably because people would just pee all over it, and of course cows would graze and shit on it. but worse than all of this are the scammers.
mysore gets a bunch of western yoga students and tourists, which in turn has created a massive scamming industry (i suspect yoga students in india for the first time might be particularly easy targets). this being low season, there are few tourists and a ton of out-of-work scammers. so they basically all descended upon me. the scammers range from cute 8 year olds to grizzled 50 year olds. the one thing they have in common is that they are extremely friendly. they're always so interested in you. there seem to be a few different pitches:
1. show you the incense factory
2. take to the one day only music festival (the scammer often posing as a music student)
3. show you a amsterdam style "coffee shop", where pot smoking is legal (mysore, they claim, is one of a handful of indian cities where it is legal)
these offers always come after a lengthy confidence building process during which they express great interest in you and share their love of things from your culture. two separate scammers actually sung the same bob marley song in an effort to prove they were "just like me." never mind that i'm not really a bob marley fan. they drop the names of their fun loving western friends living in mysore (who almost certainly don't exist, or if they do are part of the scam), and ask if you'd like to meet them. and the list goes on and on. in general, they make it difficult to shoo them away because at this point they've only been friendly.
then comes one of the above pitches, of course disguised as a gesture of friendship. i'm not sure what happens with each. i suspect the music festival has "just ended" when you reach it, and you meet the scammer's musician friend who leads you in some other unknown direction. the "coffee shop" scam scares me the most, as from what i've been able to gather, pot smoking is illegal in all of india and this might be a scam designed to get you "arrested" followed by the bribe to get you out of trouble. the incense factory is undoubtedly some sort of redirection scam as well.
one scammer walked with me for a while, chatting me up as usual. a western woman even waved at him from the window of a passing bus and he waved back. maybe i was wrong about him? maybe he's just a nice guy? no, when he waited for me for 45 minutes while i was in a museum, i knew he had to be a scammer. i debated with myself whether to see where the scam leads or to just blow him off. i decided to use him at least to point out a good cheap place to eat. he did. i was careful to make sure that it was a crowded eatery so that i wouldn't be drugged. he told me it was ok to smoke pot here, but i declined. while i was eating, his "friend" came by. this guy spoke perfect english. we talked at length about bangalore. he knew the city well and we talked about many places we'd both been. he lamented the westernization and yuppification of bangalorian culture. he spoke at great length of his interest in yoga and ayurvedic medicine and what it could do. we discussed the tragic london bombings and world politics. he spoke at length about his studies abroad and his return to india to "give something back" by working with local children with cerebral palsy. he shared his email address and gave me the address of the sister orphanage in bangalore in case i wanted to check it out and volunteer or donate. man, what a great, great guy. after lunch, he wanted me to stop by his place with the other scammer. i somehow had the impression this was the orphanage (he said he lived there), and i thought the scam would involve me giving money to either a real or fake orphanage, and/or buying some fake and/or overpriced ayurvedic medicine. i debated whether to follow or take off. what the hell, i went with them. they weren't big guys and all of the confidence building didn't suggest a violent end. plus i could turn around an leave at any time.
instead of an orphanage, we went into a ramshakle storefront. no one else was there, so i felt fairly safe. he had talked about the ayurvedic properties of certain oils in the restaurant and sure enough, he had some of those oils here. he started to bottle some up for me, one he guaranteed would repel mosquitoes and the other would cure any stomach issues (things we talked about over lunch). i told him i didn't really want to buy any oils. he went on about how this wasn't about money and how he wanted to share ayurvedic medicine and why would he go though all of this for a few dollars. he knocked down the price of the two bottles of oil to 250 rupees, which is about $6. he wanted to sell me some expensive and ostensibly highly potent "marijuana oil". when i didn't bite, he offered me a big bag of pot for $9 (the pot was real). yes, this huge investment of time was coming down to whether or not i would by $16 worth of stuff that probably had a value of something closer to $3-5. but this is india and making $10 in a day is a good score. i told them i didn't know anything about these oils and was uncomfortable buying them, and that i didn't want the pot. they feigned insult and prices came down somewhat, but i took off. they weren't happy and our friendship was clearly over.
in addition to the scammers, there were the beggars and the street vendors who would chase me for blocks trying to separate me from my rupees. definitely more agressive than bangalore.
but it wasn't all bad...
maharaja's palace - the highlight of the trip. those maharajas really knew how to live it up. at one point i ended up on the off-limits palace rooftop having taken a stairway i wasn't supposed to take (apparently a door was unlocked that shouldn't have been). i realized immediately i was somewhere i wasn't supposed to be, but i still snuck around for a while and took in the views. no one caught me.
the art museum - not bad. after making the rounds i tried to leave the gallery, but one of the staff stopped me, insisting i must see the musical clock go off on the hour. so for 5 minutes i stood in front of this massive french clock adorned on top with a little regal military scene. the only movement was the drummer boy pounding out each second. a crowd gathered. anticipation grew. the hour struck, and the music box began its song, though nothing moved. was it broken? finally the soldiers and horses and carriages stuttered into action, circling the palace atop the clock. it was easily one of the lamest things i have ever waited for. the museum guy who forced me to stay approached with a smile and said (paraphrasing) "see, wasn't that great?" i wanted to punch him but instead i gave him a thumbs up and a smile.
chamundi hill - i took a public bus to the top of chamundi hill. i left my shoes in the shoe repository, bought a ticket, and joined the queue to enter the hilltop temple. somebody shoved flowers and a religious idol into my hands. i said i didn't want this, but they said it's not for you, it's an offering. they didn't ask me for any money. i was waiting in line and someone scolded me becase my flip flops were poking out of my backpack. the complainer thought i had merely shoved the shoes i was wearing into my bag. i explained i hadn't, and that this was my luggage, but he was unsatisfied. i was now trapped in the disneyland style circuitous queue and there was no way out. finally he agreed i could hide them in my backpack at least. i did. so there you have it, my first trip to an indian temple and i'd offended the gods, or at least their worshippers.
i felt bad about my faux pas at first. but then i entered the push to get a blessing and offer my flowers and icons. people pushed and shoved as a security guy enforced a rapid offering rule. i gave my offerings and my cash and was shoved away. it's difficult to imagine a less holy experience. how is this less offensive than flip-flops protruding from a backpack? to exit the temple, i navigated the gauntlet of holy men seeking money for blessings. one caught me and i ended up lighter by 10 rupees with a dot of paint between the eyes.
finally i emerged from the temple and the guys who "gave" me the offerings hit me up and ended up with way too much of my money. i went to pick up my shoes, pushing through the children selling postcards. the shoe attendant motioned me aside, pointing to the wall. painted on the wall was the number 100, nothing else. the shoe guy said this meant that shoe storage was 100 rupees and i roared with laughter. i took my shoes and gave him 1.5 rupees.
so there you have it. this holy place was largely about getting me to part with my money. 20 years from now i'll enjoy stepping on the cockroaches these karma-poor scammers become in the next life.
i walked the 1000 steps down chamundi hill and after the usual negotiations caught an auto-rickshaw to the train station. i was really looking forward to getting home.