Thursday, April 14, 2011

If You Guide Them, They Will Pay (Maybe)

Fatehpur Sikri

"Hello my friend.  Where you from?"  We'd already heard this opener dozens of times that very morning and it was getting tiring.  "Son de Mexico chico. No hablamos Ingles."  As we tried to to slip past him, our newest friend seamlessly switched to Spanish and in rapid fire told us:
Construida por el emperador Akbar en la segunda mitad del siglo XVI, Fatehpur Sikri, la “ciudad de la victoria”, fue la capital del Imperio Mogol durante diez años solamente. El sitio comprende un conjunto arquitectónico homogéneo con numerosos monumentos y templos, entre los que figura la Jama Masjid, una de las mezquitas más grandes de la India.

Then pointing to the man guarding a large pile of shoes he causally remarked, "Es necesario poner los zapatos allá."  And indeed, we did need to remove our shoes and place them in that direction.

Actually, he didn't tell us that first bit - that is UNESCO's brief description of Fatehpur Sikri in Spanish - but in his Indian-influenced Spanish he began telling us all about the Mosque we were standing in front of.

Wow.  We paused mid-step, shocked.  And switching back into our excellent English asked him how many languages he spoke.  Hindi, English, Spanish, French, German, and some Japanese.  Duly impressed, when he pitched his guiding services, I was tempted to buy.  Thankfully, the JSR (Jesse Supremacy Rule) was there, in the form of sharp elbow into my ribs.  Coughing and sputtering from the kidney shot, I managed to give our man a big "Gracias, pero no gracias" and we walked away.

And he walked behind us.  And about ten steps later, he double-checked that we still did not want a guide.  And, still not wanting a guide, I gave him a firmer, more manly no, and we walked away, again.

A young boy marches through one of the many Fathehpur Sikri gates.
We were marching away from our wanna-be guide in a similar fashion.
And he walked behind us, again.  And about twenty steps later, he triple-checked that we did not want a guide, confounded that we would choose to tour the complex of monuments and temples, including one of the largest mosques in India, the Jama Masjid, by ourselves.  Would we really walk alone through Fatehpur Sikri, as it bears exceptional testimony to the Mughal civilization at the end of the 16th century, and offers a unique example of architectural ensembles of very high quality constructed between 1571 and 1585.?  Could we see how its form and layout strongly influenced the evolution of Indian town planning, notably at Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi)? 

Well, he actually didn't say any of those things either - they are also from the UNESCO webpage - but that is what he was trying to say.

And in substance and in reality, we again, said no.  I told him we did not want a guide, that we would not pay him for his time, and that he could surely make more money by helping and guiding those who were interested in his services.  My appeal to reason failed.  Our man trailed us for the next 30 minutes, giving us heart-breaking, but fruitless looks pleading for a mere 50 rupees to tour us around the site. 

The problem with this guide, and most guides, is that they make the sites less fun.  They move you through at their pace (often too fast, but sometimes too slow), direct your gaze to what they find interesting, and give information that is of dubious quality.  Much of the fun comes from slowly wandering, taking in the site itself but also looking at the tourists, meeting local people, and watching the touts as they go about their business.

A young family we met at Fathehpur Sikri

Shoeless, and prepared for any high-waters,
I was always ready with the camera
The older brother.  As soon as the camera came out,
he brought out his all-serious face.  I can't blame him,
I myself am quite familiar with this move.
The younger brother was all smiles.
Showing off the new teeth I think.

This is not to say that all guides are bad or that one should not use them.  For certain sites they are truly helpful, and there are some guides that give depth and color to a place that cannot be experienced on one's own.  Indian guides who stand outside tourist sites are not such guides.  And so I made him an offer:  he should leave us alone and we would not tell the tourist police that he was bothering us.  He, of course, made a counter-offer:  he would leave us alone if we would visit his shop.  And it was agreed, I promised to visit his shop if, and only if, he did not speak to us until we were done with the site.

Guides (and Jesse actually) generally disfavor long stops to
take photos of pre-plucked rose petals.
He broke his promise, and when we visited the inner part of the Mosque, he latched on to us, placing a handsome head-covering on my head, and, like many low-quality guides, pointing out the most glaringly obvious things.  Such as, very nice window screen.  Carved from marble.  Very strong.  Very smooth.

Me and our "guide."  These are the screens he detailed as being carved marble.  And strong.
He also placed the small plastic bucket I'm wearing on my head.
Don't believe me (or him) about the screens?  See.  They really are carved marble.
As we prepared to leave the mosque I kept my promise.  His "shop" was a small blanket towards the back of the large square in the complex.  Lined up were his "handmade" items.  Items identical to those we saw in Delhi, the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, and now on his blanket.  With no need for a carved soapstone elephant or a textile (he had plenty of skills) we thanked him and started to leave. 

But wait, he wailed, you give me money.  It was unpleasant to be put in this situation.  Here was a man who had so little, who tried to hard, but simply did have any goods or services we wanted to buy.  Even explicitly telling him so did not dissuade him from putting in over a hour of his time trying to get us to part with what was ultimately a small amount of money.  One US dollar would have surely been enough.  Ultimately, we did not give him money because he made our experience at Fatehpur Sikri so unpleasant.  Had he improved our time there, perhaps the outcome would have been different.  As it was, we left the mosque conflicted about whether we should have paid him for his time, as unwelcome as it was.

All of our Agra and Fatephur Sikri photos are available here.


  1. that was so sad and yet so funny i don't know whether to laugh or cry!

  2. With that bucket on your head and the rolled up pants you look like Aladdin looking for Princess Jesse, I mean Jasmine, through the very smooth very strong marble screen.

  3. @Lynda - Its true. I was looking for her because she was always running away from me and the guide.

  4. Mom -- not knowing whether to laugh or cry sums up many of our experiences in India!

  5. I was thinking to offer payment at the end of the non-tour as long as he didn't offer another ounce of guiding service. If he interrupted again, he would lose money by his own doing. If he stopped bothering you, you would be paying for what you wanted: an experience of the site without his annoyance.
    ~Cousin Cindi~


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