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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Life in Chennai # 10: Visiting The Emporiums

I’m playing the tourist today in Chennai. I’ve even got my camera slung across my shoulder, an obvious give-away. I’m down at Spencer’s Plaza, one of the man Chennai malls, picking up a couple things. I don’t really like Spencer’s; beyond its derision for being a mall, it gets enough foreigners & tourists to have a thriving gauntlet of hawkers each one proclaiming, “Hello Sir! Look in my Shop! Very Good Prices, Sir!” I’m being the tourist though and am in a good mood, so I walk through with less force and smile politely at their endless propositions. I treat myself to a nice lunch (nice being equivalent to $2) lunch at a noodle shop, enjoying the rare chance to use chopsticks again. The food is passable and reminds me vaguely of the vegetarian delights I shared at the Qingyang Gong Daoist Temple, Chengdu in Chengdu, China nearly a year ago.

Being a touristy place, the stands of autos out the front door are extremely affable, but ridiculously over priced. If you come to Chennai, in these areas, start well below half their opening offer, keep light-hearted and be firm on knowing how much things should cost. They’ll relent eventually, but you may have to fight a little harder. Of course you can always walk away down the street and hail one too.

The other trick they’ll use with great abandon here is saying that they concede against their better judgement to your price if, “you visit my friend’s shop on the way. 5 minutes look only!” I usually laugh at this one or sigh at their persistence and just say no. Don’t feel bad in any way to just say no and remain at your price point. There is no need to go by a shop somewhere. You’ve got places to be and things to do.

But today I didn’t so much have places to see and things to do. I was spending a poky afternoon and the idea for some reason tickled me. So I spontaneously decided, “Sure, why not. Take me to your shop!” I’ve long been curious to see what kind of scam or go on in these ubiquitous shop tours. Are they the same emporium shops around where I work that I see autos sometimes dropping tourists off at or are they sketchy hole-in-the-walls? Perhaps I partly did it for the story, the capturing of which has been the soundtrack of my adventures. Partly I just thought it might be fun. Either way, I had some free time, so figured why not? The driver had gleaned that I live here and grinned appreciating the commission he would get out of this. He introduced his Good Name as Litiana. So deal struck, off we zipped into the strong, moist breeze of the afternoon.

My adventure is quickly waylaid however when the auto broke down 4 blocks on. Normally I would have abandoned him for another. I did not sign up to be twiddling my thumbs in the sun in some alley while the auto gets worked on at an on-the-spot repair shop – that seems a little generous – but I’m in a relaxed mood and have my book besides so I shrug off my impatience and stick around. At the end of the day, if I get home faster, I’m just going to sit somewhere else reading so no reason to make a fuss over principle. The repairs take 15 minutes, which is quite good I think considering they seem to be doing major engine work. Puts those “quicky” lube places to shame!

So detour completed, we’re now off to the emporium. I’m a little less keen now after our stop, but am still determined to see this now that I’ve got my mind on it. Arriving, the driver helpfully recommends, “high prices, just look. 5 minutes!” Interesting. He seems serious about me just looking and escaping there money intact. Wasn’t expecting that. I like him.

The emporium shop is quiet. Dead might be a more apt description. The 4 or 5 salespeople look like they’ve been recently napping. One still is. Lining the walls are the expected silk shawls, rosewood elephants, sandalwood carvings, rugs and jewellery. All of it is fine, but not spectacular examples of the art, but all appears to be highly marked up anyway. One salesperson leads me around haphazardly and without much enthusiasm. He slightly pleadingly tells me I am his first customer of the day. Slick they are not. I was expecting slick; seasoned guys who know how to put you at ease, know how to warm you to the idea that this or that are perfect gifts for my mom, family or myself and apply the usual psychological tools. I could probably do the patter myself after being subjected to so many examples in my own travels. I walk out slightly embarrassed for them. No wonder they have to pay autos to bring us in – the only reason someone might by something is if they are desperate to complete their shopping before catching their flight or because we feel bad for them. But they didn’t even manage that emotional appeal well. Maybe it is busier on other days.

I hop back in the waiting auto, Litiana nodding happy that I didn’t come out with something, but as we pull away he informs me I have to stop at a second shop for him to get his commission. Now I really hate these bait and switch routines, changing the deal and ask after we’re part way through. It is very disrespectful, appealing manipulatively on my sense of goodness that I won’t leave him hanging after having gotten this far. And I generally am very sceptical that he is really the victim of an all-or-nothing scheme or that it is my problem if he is. His fault for not being up-front or forcing the owners of the stores, who are really on the line if no one will do their bidding, to make it a one-shop, one-commission deal. But practicing my easy-going attitude once more and since I still don’t really have any place I have to be, I sigh, “Lead on, Boss! Last stop!”

True to his word, the second emporium is literally just around the corner. I recognize the shop front of this one – it is only a few blocks from my work so I pass by often. This second shop is a little slicker and livelier, which helps relieve the tedium of pretending to browse the same identical goods. I look for the mass-produced “made in China” labels on them, not as crazy as it sounds. Yet again, most of the salespeople show little aptitude for the job, remarkable given the fine art most Indians have elevated sales to. Along with me there is a young German guy and a Korean girl half-heartedly wandering the same package tour. I smile at them for our shared entrapment, feeling the whole idea rather humorous. The manager does show some potential in his warm introduction and inquiries and made a light hearted urge for me to not leave without buying at least something small, but didn’t press when I explained I worked for an NGO nearby. I find that that does have some currency and I’m more than willing to use it to help my position in getting out of hard sells. In this case though I had brought it up mostly for the friendly conversation. I liked him. I would come back when I do want to buy souvenirs if the prices weren’t so outrageous. I tell him to join me for lunch at the Suriyas Hotel down the road (TTK Rd) from the shop, where I eat most days.

I leave the two emporiums feeling slightly disappointed. I signed up for this plan partly because I thought it might be a kick to see how I fared against the city’s best tourist trappers so when that flopped, I felt cheated. Funny how it all comes down to expectations!

With a couple hours of daylight left, I have the driver drop me off at a Coffee Day in my area. Coffee Day is Chennai’s only upscale coffee chain. For reading travellers, other, more atmospheric, places to chill include Amethyst, Mocha and Euro Café (name?). The cappuccinos and lattes cost Rs 38, which is 4-6 times the price of regular coffee at the wallahs and restaurants, but the filter coffee is nice and smooth and they do those fancy swirl patterns on the foam. Despite the nod to the globally standardized upscale look, my latte cup has a couple chips in it, which I kind of like.

The main reason I stop though is that it has a nice shaded patio to chill on. I miss café culture, the pace and places to sit and watch the world. It is not foreign in all India I’m told, but it is not common at all in Chennai. Sad really, everyone is always moving on the streets, hovering standing around the wallahs at corners, but never sitting and relaxing. The one disadvantage of the little wallah stands is that they permeate an air of being temporary, hurried and afterthoughts, which does give a less relaxed and planned feel than a streetscape of cafés and slow shops, invoking feelings that relaxing is what we are supposed to be doing. But I understand it is more a function of how people here still most socialise and the heightened importance of family. If being home and surrounded by family is more important than other places, hanging out on the street will naturally be less valued, plus the still strong barriers to socialising freely between the sexes dampens the demand – after alcohol, coffee must the worlds second most chosen social lubricant of choice.

It is nice to play the tourist and see your city in a different way and I got a little adventure out of it. So for any other travellers, don’t worry about the autos trying to get you to see the emporiums, but don’t bother accepting either. Their not worth the time or browse so give them a pass and just laugh and tell the drivers you’re don’t want any stops and stick to your price. They’ll give in eventually. The good side actually, thinking about it is that Chennai doesn’t get so many tourists that the autos actually do far less double duty as salesmen for tours, attractions, curious and other junk, but perhaps it is worse in the tourist haunts. I have to be wary of making generalisations on a city bigger than LA that I swim in local circles mostly different than those passing through as travellers. If people have different experiences, I’d love to hear them.

Amethyst is at Sundar Mahal, 14 Padmavathi Road (off Llyods Road), Jeyapore Colony, Gopalapuram
Mocha & Euro Café (name?) are on Khader Nawaz Khan Road, Nungambakkam

1 comment:

apu said...

you do have some patience ! I've enjoyed reading your blog - and will drop in again...its nice to see Chennai from an outsider's perspective. (Am a chennai girl, though I dont live there anymore...)