Drink tea, make friends, invite to store

The guy said his name was Raj, although that seemed to be the pseudonym of choice for Indians with nefarious intent.

Kind of like the subcontinental version of John Smith.

Anyway, Raj had approached me on the street and announced he wanted to take me out to drink chai. No kidding, Raj - half of Jaipur wanted to take me out to drink chai. And most of them seemed to be called Raj.

I'd been fighting off offers of tea and company all morning from various characters ranging from the overly friendly to the outright annoying. Such is life in Jaipur, where everyone wants to know your "good name" and to share sweet drinks with you.

Most, if not all, have some sort of ulterior motive, usually related to a cousin's rug store, an uncle's sari shop or a brother's jewellery business. The modus operandi is fairly simple: drink tea, make friends, invite to store.

It's a bit of a laugh the first time and a painful annoyance the next 200 times.

Still, there was something about this Raj that just seemed a little less untrustworthy than all the other Rajs I'd encountered that day. He just wanted to chat about cricket, he said. And, besides, it'd been about half an hour since my last cup of chai - what the hell?

So Raj and I retired to the nearest chai stand and drank slowly out of terracotta cups, talking, as Raj had promised, about cricket. Not rugs, or saris or jewellery - just wickets, wides and Sachin Tendulkar.

Raj didn't want our friendship to end there, however.

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"Tonight, what are you doing?" he asked me, still perched on the wooden stool at the chai stand.

"Er, I don't know, I hadn't thought about it."

"OK, tonight, my friends and I will take you to see a temple. It is amazing, the temple. It is for all people - Hindus, Muslims, Christians. We will drive you there."

Um, right. Now, when you're travelling, it's a good idea to take heed of most of the advice you were given in primary school. And if I remember right, riding in cars with strangers was pretty high up on the list of Things That Will Get You Into Trouble.

For some reason, however, I'd decided that Raj seemed a pretty genuine sort of swindler, so

I decided to go along with him.

Sure enough, I met him at the appointed time that evening, jumped in the car and we spent a largely uneventful evening strolling around what was actually a very interesting temple (it's called Birla Mandir, if ever you're there and Raj isn't). However, Raj and his new band of hangers-on weren't done with me yet. "What are you doing tomorrow Mr Ben?" Raj asked as he drove me back to the hotel. "Come and have lunch with us!"

Hmm. I wasn't sure how far I could push this - so far my new friends hadn't seemed the least bit interested in separating me from any of my rupees but I had the feeling that that was only a matter of time. The more of these excursions I went on, the closer I was getting to the inevitable marble emporium.

Still, I went along for the ride.

I might not be stupid but I am highly susceptible to peer pressure.

Next day, same again. A nice lunch in a restaurant I couldn't afford - fortunately, Raj and his buddies paid. And then came the dinner invitation. A nice restaurant, Raj said. We'll pick you up.

I sighed. Whatever this is,

I thought, the expensive dinner is surely going to be the closer.

So, I did what any naive, hungry traveller would do: I agreed.

Dinner was lovely, of course. Plenty of talk about cricket, too. It was only at the end of the meal that they finally hit me with it.

"So, Mr Ben," Raj said, laying a hand on my forearm. "We are going to call in at my cousin's jewellery shop now, say hello. How would you like to come along with us?"

Jewellery! So that's the lark.

I grimaced, nodded, and we were off again, this time to the jewellery store, where I sat in front of Raj's cousin while he jiggled a gold chain in one hand and gave me the spiel.

"You see, I think you are are going to England soon, is this right?"

I nodded. "Yes, and you see, when we go to England, they tax a lot, very much, on my jewellery. But, if you take it in ... no tax! You see?

"And we will pay you for this favour, don't worry."

Damn. I'd accepted so much from these guys - guided tours, expensive meals, friendship - could I really turn my back on them now?

Yes. Yes, I could.

So, I politely declined their fine offer, stood up, shook everyone's hand and walked out the door, never to see or hear from any of them ever again.

If there's a moral to the story, I've decided it's probably this: giving strangers the benefit of the doubt when you're travelling can take you to some amazing, unexpected places. Other times, it can just land you in the middle of an international jewellery smuggling ring. Same difference, really.

Have you ever had an interesting experience with a stranger while travelling? Share your stories below.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

Read Ben Groundwater's column each week in the Sun Herald.

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