The warnings in the guidebooks are clear: beware of scams. Scams are designed to exploit your innate foreignness to separate you from your cash. A careful traveller should be aware and alert for scams. However, you can be too careful when you travel. You can be so afraid of getting ripped off, beaten up (or worse) that you miss a great opportunity to connect with your destination.
A place like India, for example, is awash in scams, most of them of the guide-kickback variety. This is a common scam where your guide (or driver, or a random guy on the street) offers to show you a place to buy authentic crafts. The place they bring you to is fine, but perhaps a little more expensive because the guide is getting a secret commission. This scam is EVERYWHERE, and it is nearly impossible to avoid. Besides, had I successfully avoided this visit for commission, I would never have met The Potter.
It was in Jaipur, in the middle of a long hot still day. The pink city doesn’t slow down, the traffic is always rumbling and screaming off somewhere. We were tired, so our driver helpfully suggested visiting a potter who could show us the famed Jaipur pottery. This is an obvious ploy, but we were too tired to fight it, so off to the potter we went. His shop was more of a sprawling workshop and showroom tucked into a crowded corner of the city. The Potter himself was a soft-spoken, friendly man who showed us the methods he used to create everything from giant wildly painted vases to dainty, subtly patterned teacups. He gave us fired clay coasters at the end of the demo, and we began to talk.
The Potter loves Americans; he loves America. Once, when Bill Clinton was President, he sent a clay bead necklace to the First Lady. A few months later he received a signed personal letter of thanks from the President and his wife. Now, nearly a decade later (and perhaps nostalgic for the Clinton presidency), he wanted to send something else, but his English was ragged. Would we help him write a letter to Bill Clinton?
So we drank tea and lounged in the showroom. We brainstormed introductions and etiquette. We thought about the most appropriate way to send a gift to the President of the United States. I had never sent the president a letter, much less a gift, and the irony that I was ghostwriting my first communication with the head of the US, in India, was not lost on me. But nonetheless we took pride in the endeavor. We spoke of The Potter’s admiration of the president’s comportment, his respect of the president’s decisions, his complete bafflement at how any man does what the president does day in and day out. We closed mentioning the enclosed necklace, another beauty, as a gift from a admirer in India. The Potter was thrilled.
We left with warm handshakes and hugs, back into the swarm of traffic, back into open scam territory, our defenses back up again, only this time with the knowledge that not every scam is a rip-off.