Thursday, September 15, 2011

Day 111 - Hostage on a Houseboat

I should have done research in my Lonely Planet, and heeded the advice of friends I'd met so far on my the end I think I got what I deserved when I booked a houseboat room on the Dal River in Srinagar in the Kashmir area. The travel books clearly stated that I should NOT book a room in these houseboats while in Delhi, and that I should arrive here and inspect the rooms myself. I guess I was so desperate to get out of Delhi that I just followed the advice of the travel agency I stumbled on when I explored yesterday.

The morning was sketchy as I had an early 5:30am flight out of Delhi to the northwest of India in Srinagar. I checked out, and tried to negotiate a lower price on my bookings because 1)I was given a shitty room without a private bathroom in a shitty hotel (Hotel Hindustan) due probably to overbookings in my hotel of choice with private bathrooms (Kuldeep Guest House) 2)I was relocated after my first day to their other hotel, still never getting a room in my hotel of choice. The second hotel was decent, but I felt I should still get some sort of discount for the trouble. I ended up accepting a 50 rupee discount ($1), even though I wanted a better deal.

Because everyone is trying to make a buck here, I was told by the travel agency not to tell my hotel that I booked the flight through them, to avoid them having to pay some sort of commission. They told me to wait outside the hotel after I checked out for a taxi to the airport, so I stood in the darkness of a narrow and dirty alleyway spilled with trash and stray cats and dogs. I stood there for about 15 minutes, feeling completely uncomfortable, until finally the driver came.

The airport process was painless, although there was continued heightened security due to the recent bombing. The flight on Go Airlines was maybe 60% full, and it took about 1.25 hours to get there.

I researched last night about potential conflicts in the region due to the political instability between Pakistan and India in the predominantly Muslim area. There had been riots at the end of the prior year, but flights had increased in the summer this year and things were relatively safe. I did read though about a 2-day employee strike (curfew) that ended a couple days ago. They were protesting the release of jailed youths who were being detained for no transparent reason, but probably due to their involvement in rallies against the government. I read stories about protesters pelting stones at the military at different demonstrations and it was advised that I stay away from these areas at all costs.

Upon arrival at the airport, all foreigners were required to fill out notification forms. I felt a little more at ease by having something filled out that showed where I was going to stay. I met my driver, who immediately asked me what I told the airport officials. I told him that I let them know where I was staying, and he was a little disturbed by that, saying that I shouldn't have said anything because the government was corrupt and they would also want to ask for some sort of commission. WTF? Who am I supposed to trust?

It was nice to see the river and all the houseboats fixed throughout. These English-style boats were built when England controlled India, and they were not allowed to purchase land in the area, so they built their own houses on water. The houseboats remain in the area, owned by different people who rent them out in the summer to Indian tourists, who call this area the summer capital due to its pleasant weather.

I arrived at my houseboat on the Dal River after taking a shikara (gondola style boat) to get there. After a shitty breakfast of Kashmir tea, toast, and two hard-boiled eggs, I took a long nap to catch up on lost sleep. Waking up after the long nap was when I felt somewhat like a prisoner or hostage in my own houseboat.

The whole idea for the houseboat company was probably to sell me a trekking tour in the Himalaya mountains at prices that I didn't want to pay and probably couldn't afford given the fact that I still had a couple months left to travel. I sat in the houseboat for a while with one of the employees who sort of interviewed me in a friendly manner, asking me how long I was staying, what my other plans were, what my occupation was. I tried to be curt in my responses and give the idea that I was only going to stay in the area for 3 days and I couldn't afford a trek since I was just a “student.”

He told me that his manager would come after the Friday's lunchtime Muslim prayers were over. It seems like everyone says something will arrive in “5 minutes” but it can really mean anywhere from 20-30 minutes, so I waited for about 30 minutes before he came and tried to sell me his spiel about how amazing the treks in the Himalayas would be. I thought hard about doing it since I might never get another chance to do this, but I also felt that I trekked other areas and will be going to Kathmandu so I would get to experience different environments that were equally special, and cheaper. He quoted around $350 for a 4 day, 3 night trek, which I declined. After a little more negotiation, he lowered it to $300, which I also declined. After he realized that I probably wouldn't budge, he shook my hand and said thank you, wanting to leave as quickly as possibly. This is one of the things I really hate. It's all “brotherhood” and “friendship” when they try to initiate business with you, but when business is off the table, they couldn't care less about who you are. There is no compassion or care for the tourist or foreigner at all unless you bring some money on the table – NONE WHATSOEVER.

After he left, I felt stranded again, since I didn't really know if I should wait for another employee to take me on the shikara back to the city, or just hail my own. I waited for another 20 minutes before another employee came and asked me what price I could offer. I HATE THAT TOO! If I don't want to do a damn trek, then no deal will persuade me to do one. It was already decided on my part that I didn't want to do it, so I don't want to negotiate again. Once that failed, one last employee came and offered me another trekking deal for just one day, instead of four. Again, I declined, and said I wanted to visit some of the Mughal gardens instead. He quoted me a ridiculous price on a taxi to the area, and again, I declined, saying I would book it myself when I get back to the city. At this point, we get into an argument and he insinuates that I am accusing him of being a “cheat” because I didn't want to book with him. He was right, but I didn't want to tell him that. And I'm sure all these Indian salespeople are “cheats” and they know so too, or else they wouldn't assume that tourists think that about them. Everyone has been so confrontational and argumentative when I decline an offer for business. And everyone has fibbed about what is included in everything purchased. It seems they say whatever they can to seal the deal, whether it is the truth or not, from hotel lodgings, to food offered, to services included in prices, to distances that treks are, etc...

We arrive back on land where he pressures me to take his taxi ride to the gardens, and I tell him that I'll think about doing it tomorrow since it is already 4pm and the sun would set in a couple hours. Instead, I tell him I want to use the internet, and he ends up staying with me for 2 hours while I book my flight out of India and to Kathmandu... It was frustrating that he was with me the whole day. I wanted to explore the city myself, look for another houseboat to stay at, or at least another hotel on land. Not once all day had I been left alone, except in the houseboat with no means of communication to the outside world. I figure I would get out of the country by plane since no one would be willing to help me book trains through the country without first booking some other tours with them. I'd travel Nepal first, and decide whether or not I would come back to India to finish my tour here, after getting some advice from other travellers.

That is another thing...there weren't many foreign tourists here, which is something I value in certain situations, but I feel that in India, it is best to be with someone, anyone you trust. I couldn't get any advice from other tourists on how much to pay, where to go, how to book trains, etc. Never have I been so distrustful of people on this entire trip, and it has taken a toll mentally and emotionally on me in these past couple of days.

The night was spent on the houseboat again, where I got into another argument with the employee who called me “un-American” for not booking anything with him, even after I explained that I was on a budget and couldn't afford it. I was left to eat dinner on the houseboat, who knows how the food was prepared, and stayed there all night, drinking shitty beer called Hayward 5000, which I was overcharged for after one employee purchased it for me, and I asked another employee how much he gets the beer for. I was quoted 175 rupees when it should have been around 70. One of the employees told me the others were crazy, but I think all he wanted was to hint at me giving him a tip for all his “good service” as a cook.

Hopefully I lose these people tomorrow when I get off the boat and back on land, and hopefully they don't follow me, trying to “help” me find another hotel...

1 comment:

  1. You know, the idea sounded really cool, but I guess looks are deceiving.

    When I got your postcard, I expected to read about pirates in India... not a salesman... LOL. But I can totally feel a sense of massive frustration while reading this entry!

    In regards to being un-American, you are as American as can be. U.S.A. is the land of the free... dom to form prejudices after one experience. :]