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Seven Things I Learned about Negotiating in India

This guy means business.I’ve been musing a lot about my experience traveling in India at the end of 2013, and yeah, I guess I learned about some history and culture and shit, but really, the main thing I learned was how to get a good price on a hemp t-shirt. Before we landed in Delhi I was pretty helpless when it came to negotiation. Here are the things I’ve learned:

1. Remember that nothing is unique. Every tourist town has about a dozen different versions of the same shop with all the same goods, so pop in to one and do a little research. Ask for a price and act uninterested, then leave. You’ll probably get the shop owner chasing after you shouting lower and lower numbers. Keep walking.

2. Decide what you think the item is worth before you even ask for a price. After you’ve expressed firm interest through an offer you’re in a weaker position, so figure out what you’re wiling to pay as soon as you can. How do you know what an item is worth in this strange currency where prices seem arbitrary? I’m glad you asked.

3. A tactic Christina used with great success was actually shopping without any money on her. She’d leave her purse at home and pop into shops just to see what they had. Even if you can’t find that exact item in another store, you can always come back later.

4. When its time to make an offer, ask for a price. If you think its extortionate, smile and ask for a better price. Then maybe smile again and ask for the best price without even making an offer. Hopefully that will get you to a more reasonable starting point. From there you can go back and forth a few times (always with a smile) and settle on a mutually agreeable price. If the shop owner won’t budge, remember your trump card is to walk away. If he STILL doesn’t budge, maybe your price is too low and you should consider not being such a cheap ass.

5. Don’t fall for the “What’s 50 rupees to you, a dollar? It makes no difference to you but to me it’s a meal for my family!” Ok, maybe that’s true, but if everyone paid Rs 50 more for everything soon the prices would be higher than the west. Price is not only determined by what the vendor bought the product for, but what he thinks he can get for it. This is especially true for rickshaw rides, which cost drivers very little. Rest assured, vendors are making money on the transaction regardless of how good you are at negotiation. You’re always paying the tourist tax.

6. A line my friend Stephen likes to use to cut through the bullshit was something to the effect of “I just want a good price, add a little to what it cost you and I’ll be happy with that.” It helps to know a bit about what it cost but it also appeals to the vendor’s softer side, something they aren’t used to getting from tourists. You may disarm them (with a smile).

7. Don’t get hung up on it. You can drive yourself crazy with the constant negotiating. Sometimes its worth it for your sanity to just take the first offer (if you think it’s fair enough), or even MAKE the first offer if you have an idea of what the item is worth from the start. Remember that stress and time are worth something to you as well.

That’s it. Some of it seems obvious but to someone like me that avoids confrontation, it helps to have a plan. I’ll leave you the story with one of my more successful negotiations, which happened almost entirely by accident:

We were in Jaipur and I’d broken another pair of cheap plastic sandals. I wanted something that would last a little longer. We stopped into an upmarket shoe store with window displays and well-dressed employees. I asked about a price of sandals.

“700 rupees,” the manager said. This was a little more than $10. Not expensive but more than I wanted to pay. I thought it was fair for good quality but I had no idea how long they’d hold up. I decided to look around a bit. He didn’t make another offer as I left, so I figured that price was pretty firm.

Later that day I saw a very similar pair of sandals at another store, this one a bit dustier and with harsh fluorescent lights. Instead of neat boxes there were piles of different sizes strewn around.

“How much?” I held up my chosen camel-leather sandals.
“600 rupees, very good quality.” The salesmen demonstrated the flexibility of the soles. I still thought the first pair were better quality, and that I could negotiate them down a bit.
“No thanks,” I said, and started to walk out. I genuinely didn’t want the sandals.
“Ok, 500, my friend.”
I continued out the door.
“400!”
“300!” Now we’re talkin’. I was willing to take the risk that these weren’t the same shoes for less than half the price of the first store, which I wasn’t sure would budge from 700. And if they stayed firm I’d have to trudge all the way back here, tail between my legs. I could have been ruthless and offered 200, then maybe settled on 250, but I’ve got a heart. In this case the 50 rupees didn’t matter; I’d already won.

Well, this was a few months ago, and I still have the sandals. They survived daily wear for our stay in India and broke in with a beautiful patina. I considered filling my suitcase with dozens of pairs for resale back home, then thought better of venturing into an India-based import business and decided to be satisfied with my accidentally successful negotiation.

May you all have the same good fortune. Go forth, and bargain! Ok, maybe not at the dentist’s office.

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Home Videos from the Road: Hampi

Here’s a little video we cooked up with some new toys:

More to come soon!

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2013 Superlatives

2013 has been a year of spectrums, from long work hours to not working at all, from living where folks are comfortable to traveling extreme poverty, and from diving to the bottom of the ocean to trekking at the top of the world. We’ve had some of the most serene as well as the most trying situations that we’ve ever experienced together. It feels as though we ought to reflect on our travels and pull some sort of deep insight from our experiences. But instead, we’re going for superlatives. This is our year, in a bit more than bullet points.

Lake Hawea, New Zealand

Lake Hawea, New Zealand

Favorite City Moment
Zach: Arriving in Kathmandu, seeing nothing but Nepali signage and dust and realizing I’d entered another world.
Christina:  I got my tattoo on our first day in Melbourne. That afternoon, we went to the Central Business District to explore the town, but got caught in a late afternoon downpour and ran from bar to bar on a map that our friends from New Zealand had made for us. The kind folks at Penny Blue beer bar let us in before they were actually open, where we dried off, enjoyed Aussie IPAs and started working on the guest list for our wedding.

Favorite Nature Moment
Both: Sitting on a rock at Annapurna Base Camp watching the goats that the shepherd in the Free Tibet t-shirt brought down from the mountain, listening to the glaciers crack in the background, and sitting in an amphitheater of 8,000 meter peaks.

Best Non Alcoholic Beverage
Z: Banana lassi, India
C: Super sweet chai from street vendors in the tiny cups, India

Worst Illness:
Both: Alternating turns in the bathroom while we both had food poisoning on Gili Trawangen in Indonesia.

Biggest Adrenaline Rush
Z: Third pitch of Turn on, Tune In, Drop Out in Wanaka, NZ
C: 3am in Bali, I was laying in bed, not sleeping because my two friends from NYC were on their way to come see us. Finally hearing their voices then staying up eating cashews and chatting with them, in the flesh, into the wee hours of the night.

Fanciest Moment
Z: Drinking fancy scotch at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai
C: Having a lazy morning reading Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook and drinking a latte in the library at the Pen y Bryn Lodge in Oamaru, New Zealand with Zach’s dad and Janet.

Dirtiest Moment
Z: Day three of hiking Gunung Rinjani in Lombok, Indonesia; so much dust and human waste.
C: The three consecutive days we spent on overnight buses and in dusty bus stations from Pushkar to Hampi in India.

Worst Decision of the Year
Z: Telling the Bollywood casting tout to get lost. One of our friends accepted the offer and came back with amazing stories.
C: Diving into the shallow end of the pool in Bali.

Best read
Z: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing
C: Michael Pollan’s Cooked or John Irving’s The Cider House Rules

Favorite Photo You’ve Taken
Z:

Kaikoura Seal Pup

C:

 Portrait Arambol Boat Man-0009

Scariest Moment
Z: Sliding down the icy Crown Range road between Queenstown and Wanaka, NZ in our 20 year old minivan with bald tires.
C: The public bus ride in Nepal. Specifically, when it tried to cross the landslide.

Animal Highlight
Z: Stumbling over a three meter python at 10:30pm on a dark trail in Hampi, India.
C: Cuddling the nice, chubby stray cats in Istanbul.

Favorite Meal
Z: The next one!
C: Tie. Either dinner at the Francesca’s Italian Kitchen Staff Party or breakfast at Privato Cafe in Istanbul. So different. Equally delicious.

Thing You’d Be Happy If You Never Did Again
Z: Take an overnight bus in India
C: Visit East Timor

Encounter With a Stranger That You’ll Remember Forever
Z: The guy on the street in Jaipur who asked us why westerners are so rude to Indians and then immediately tried to sell us something.
C: Sitting on a stoop in Kathmandu talking with a shop keeper for like an hour. He told me a story about his friends saving up for years to apply for a US visa, then the chances of actually receiving one being like winning the lottery.

Place to Which You Are Most Excited to Return
Both: Nepal Himalaya

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Street Portraits from India

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Bouldering Hampi

Hampi-guide-9833

Wow, there are a lot of rocks to climb in Hampi. After our first day bouldering there I wrote a feverish email to my climbing buddies back home in the USA, telling them to get on the next flight to Bangalore. Yeah, there are a lot of fantastic climbing destinations in the USA and other, more accessible places around the world, but nowhere else can you live like a king for under $10 a day within walking distance of world-class granite. Oh, and if you’ve always wanted your name in a guidebook there are thousands of first ascents available in the surrounding 300 square kilometers of boulders and cracks.

About Hampi
Recently made a Unesco World Heritage Site, Hampi is a burgeoning tourist destination in southern India for temple-gazing as well as climbing. Split into two main areas by the Tungabhadra River, the Hampi Bazaar side caters to more of the short-term tourists, while the pot-smoking and didgeridoo-playing happens on Hampi Island. Shocker, Hampi Island is also home to most of the developed bouldering. If you’re there for climbing, stay in Hampi Island and watch out for flying dreadlocks.

Everything in Hampi Island is designed for the lazy climber tourist. A dozen small guesthouses are within ten minutes walk of multiple boulder areas, and the heat of the day is spent flopping on cushions around low tables, drinking chai and playing chess or falling off a slackline. It’s common to stumble on a drum circle at sunset among the boulders or catch a Tarantino flick over thali at the restaurant next door.

Getting There
Fly to Bangalore or Goa from NYC for around $1200 round trip, and hop on an overnight sleeper bus for Rs 800 (about $12) to Hospet or Hampi. No matter your preferred flavor, you can easily append a sleepy beach holiday or hardcore party schedule in Goa to your trip.

When to Go
The coolest weather is in December and January, but most of November and February are just fine for climbing in the morning and evening, and you’ll get better rates on rooms. Don’t think of coming in March and April, when temperatures soar into the 40s celsius. The rainy season is June to September and the area will be deserted. In October most guesthouses will just be opening up for the season, but you could get lucky with the weather and a place to stay.

Places to Flop
We set up camp at Gopi Guesthouse for the duration of our month in Hampi. The staff are wonderful and the rooms are cheap. Bamboo bungalows start at Rs 100 ($1.50) per night, and deluxe rooms with a daybed in the garden run a very reasonable Rs 350 ($5) while we were there in November, though rates increase in December and January. The real highlight here is the food, which is the best in town and comes in massive, shareable portions.

Mowgli Guesthouse is a slightly more comfortable option on the strip in Hampi Island. It’s a professionally run operation where you can count on management to fulfill promises, which is sometimes a rare occurrence in India.

If you’re looking for a very quiet, reflective time and hard bouldering steps from your door, check out Baba’s Cafe Guesthouse. Small and well away from the beaten path on the other side of the main climbing area, you’ll feel more like you’re staying in an Indian village than a tourist town. It’s run by a charming Spanish expat named Hugo, who is more than happy to show you around his side of town and the areas he is developing.

No, You Don’t Need to Take Your Boulder Mat on the Plane
A couple of enterprising young local climbers named Tom & Jerry rent boulder mats, guidebooks, and a few tired pairs of shoes for Rs 80 ($1.50) per day. Cheap as chips, as they say. During busy times they’ve been known to run out of mats, but Thimma at Shiva Guesthouse and a few other spots also have some available. On the other hand, if all the mats are rented out you can be pretty sure there will be some nice folks you can tag along with.

A new guidebook came out the day we left so we didn’t get much time with it, but several copies were floating around town. It was far broader than the previous edition, reaching several kilometers into the surrounding hills with clear topographical maps and lots of pretty color pictures. Strangely, it had both English and German text. It would be hard to survive in India if you only speak German.

Rest Day Activities
Hampi is littered with temples and ruins, but I’d be lying if I said we spent much time sightseeing. This is not your source for that information. There’s a massive reservoir 4km from Hampi Island where you can laze away the afternoon and indulge in a Kingfisher or three, which are selectively prohibited in the more devout areas of Hampi. Or hop on a motorbike (Rs 150/day plus petrol) and buzz through the local villages; they are about as authentic as it gets.

Stuff Your Dad Would Ask About

  • Don’t expect to practice your new Hindi here. English is commonly spoken and often preferred by locals. Most of the guesthouses are run by Nepali seasonal workers, so a few words of their native tongue go pretty far.
  • There’s no ATM in Hampi Island, so plan your cash carefully. Rent a motorbike and go to Anegundi to visit the ATM. Be aware of daily power cuts that knock out service.
  • The Indian visa can be a headache if you’re already outside your home country. The buzz among travelers is Bangkok, Kathmandu, and possibly Columbo, Sri Lanka are your best bets. Of course if you plan ahead and get a visa from the Indian embassy in your home country you don’t have to worry about this. Six month, single entry visas are typical, but unlike other countries they begin on the date of issue, not the date you enter the country. Five and ten year multi-entry visas are available for US citizens, rules change frequently so beware of all published information. This is probably out of date already.
  • If you plan to stay for a while, an Indian SIM card will be helpful. After recent terrorist attacks the government has made it more difficult for foreigners to get a SIM, but its not impossible. You’ll need a reference (a hotel will work), a few passport photos, and a sympathetic retailer to get one.

Do-overs
If I had it to do over, I’d only plan to stay longer in Hampi. A month flew by and I was sad to leave. Count on getting knocked out with gut issues for at least a few days, so build some extra time into your schedule. This isn’t a place to squeeze in. Relax, enjoy it, and prepare your fingers to be shredded by small holds and sharp granite.

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Life is Good in Hampi

Fields and boulders at the outskirts of Hampi

We didn’t know it while we were traipsing around Rajasthan, seeing the sights, but the little town of Hampi is what we have been craving since we arrived in India.

With so much history and so many really big, really beautiful historic sites, we couldn’t resist checking out the Golden Triangle. We saw the forts and tombs, palaces and temples, and our favorite, Jantar Mantar. We got tired, rested, saw some more sights, got tired again, rested again, went to a new city and did it again. For two weeks, we were full on tourists in cities where people make their money from tourism. For two weeks, I didn’t leave the guest house without telling ten rickshaw drivers “no,” or trying to avoid begging children. We were a wallet, an opportunity.

“Hey my friend! Where you from?
“America”
“Obamaland, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan! Nice country.”
“Yeah, pretty good, but we are enjoying yours as well”
“You come to see my shop? Very nice, you come.”
“No thank you.”
“Yes, you coming. Shopping. Very nice.”

And so it went until the next person came by and started from the top. “Obamaland, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan!” It was endearing the first time, but got old very quickly.

We were doing the things that you do when you’re in India. It was really cool being in the presence of structures from empires ago and learning about the history of India, but it was exhausting and felt a bit like going through the motions. Is this what traveling in India is like? Is this what people do for six months? For a moment there, we forgot that long term travel is a balance of new cultures and new activities while also maintaining some routine and indulging in things you know you like.

So when Robyn and Stephen, our former room mates from New Zealand sent us a message saying, “We are in India! Smashed it out last night all the way from Bangkok to Chennai then Bangalore to Hampi! Hampi is amazing. Actually so good I cant believe I missed it on previous trips…Climbing, friends, bicycles, a risk board…,” we scrapped our plans for further sight seeing and booked three back to back night buses to go see them in Hampi.

Hampi is quiet and comfortable. We climb the famed Hampi boulders in the early mornings and cool evenings and avoid the heat of the day by flopping around the open air restaurant at our guest house, eating thalis and drinking tea. As Stephen said over breakfast the other day, “Not everything you see here is going to be enjoyable while you’re here. That’s not why you’re here. You’re here to see what it’s like in India. Well that, and to see 50,000 camels competing in a beauty pageant.”

 

 

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Pushkar Camel Fair

Pushkar Sunset

The Pushkar Camel Fair is a circus and camel trading show that overtakes the small town every year. When I say circus, I don’t mean an everyone sit down in the big tent for a show sort of thing, I mean a festive, chaotic, mob scene in the desert. 50,000 camels, their neon turban clad traders and their gypsy families set up a tent camp outside of town. In the week before the fair, camels are bought and sold while locals set up the stadium and ancient carnival rides. We arrived a few days before the fair started, while the barefoot locals were swinging sledge hammers, erecting a stadium in the sand. Pre-fair Pushkar was filled with anticipation for the biggest week of the year and the heavy flow of tourist dollars.

The main drag in Pushkar is one narrow street, about the width of a car (sometimes at the expense of side mirrors) from one building to the opposite building. A few tinier side streets are home to the locals. There is no space for cars in town as the main bazaar is crammed with international tourists fondling camel statues, Israelis tearing through on Enfields and Hindu pilgrims visiting the holy lake and temples at the center of town. Fruit vendors, stray dogs, chai stands, and pashmina shopkeepers all add their voices to the chaos of the one street that runs through Pushkar.

The finalists in the Camel Decorating Competition

The finalists in the Camel Decorating Competition

While on the bazaar, there were so many people that hawkers would shout at you, but quickly move on to the next tourist. At the fair though, they followed you around. “Only twenty rupees, m’am. Twenty rupees for a bangle. Handmade, special.” (Clearly, it was not.) “Photo? Photo? Very nice my photo. Money? Camel ride? You like happy price for camel ride? Give me money? Chai? Chai? Chai?” It was endless. I must have said “No” more in an hour at the Camel Fair than in a month at home.

In the morning, while the sun was still waking up, we visited the fairgrounds and were back for lunch before the mobs of people and camel poo dust got too intense. We wandered through the scrubs to the open space where the camels were held and stood in the sea of beasts, just listening to their dinosaur like noises. This must be what Jurassic Park is like. 

In the afternoons, we retreated to the garden at our guest house to edit photos and chat with family. We met some American travelers and enjoyed their familiar accents at tourist-friendly cafes that offered falafel, pomegranate juice and real coffee (!!). We stayed in Pushkar for a week and enjoyed a bit of routine simply by staying in one city.

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Jantar Mantar: Not Just an Awesome Name for a Band

Jantar Mantar!

Look, if you’re a maharaja and there’s no threat of imminent attack from desert raiders on elephants, you better find some way to use your time. Rather than sit around all day eating grapes and drinking chai, in 1721 Sawai Jai Singh decided to bring science to Rajasthan (now part of India) through the construction of Jantar Mantar, an observatory in Jaipur which also happens to be a pretty awesome name for a 70s prog-rock band.

Astrology is very important to Indian culture, with superstitions about everything from the time you’re born to the best day of the month to start a business. Visiting Jantar Mantar brought this to life. The work conducted here was some of the most advanced astronomy since the great ancient Greek and Roman thinkers and Jai Singh devoted considerable resources to accurate measurement of the sun, moon, and stars, in a time when most of his subjects led very simple existences.

Pretty much a playground for astronomy nerds, the observatory contains about a dozen giant measurement devices, one of which displays the accurate time down to two second intervals using only stone and the sun!

As you can see, the devices at Jantar Mantar aren’t just functional, they’re beautiful. Carved marble abounds, and huge gentle curves hug you from every direction. Jaipur is heavy on history, but even if you’re sick of palaces, temples, and forts (as we very much were) you can’t skip this unique and fascinating example of primitive science.

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The Best and Worst of Agra

Oh, you’ve heard of the Taj Mahal?

We tried to skip visiting Agra, fearing the crush of tourists wielding massive zoom lenses, but everyone told us we were crazy to pass up a chance to see the most beautiful building in the world. They were right. It was pretty nice.

But you can read about the Taj anywhere. The real story here is the incredible contrast of its marble splendor with our cheap-ass hotel room in Agra, which I’m pretty sure is the shittiest place we’ve slept in a year and a half of traveling.

worst-room-ever-8547It was missing a few basic amenities: a table, chairs, even hooks to put wet towels on. As you can see from the photo to the left, it was just a bed in a room, and the room was so narrow that we had to awkwardly shuffle in from the foot of the bed.

Our window (or what was left of it) looked out onto the front steps of the neighborhood mosque. And this wasn’t just any mosque. They must have had tourist dollars flowing in from the Taj pilgrims, because they had the most advanced public address system in India.

Shortly after our daily dawn neighborhood wake-up call we were bound to be alert because the ceiling plaster above our bed was crumbling, and the early morning construction on the building shook it onto our heads, covering us in a thin film of white dust. GOOD MORNING!

Then there’s the door. I fought with the damn door each and every time I touched it. Locking it from the outside involved pulling it shut with all my weight, then twisting and prying the bent and rusty bolt to line up with the lock. This produced deafening screeching noises, making us very popular with other guests. Opening it from the inside was no picnic either, which made stumbling to the shared bathroom in the middle of the night especially convenient.

Oh, the bathroom. What a joy. A shared bathroom is bad enough, but when you’re sharing a single squat toilet with the popular hotel restaurant and the staff that are sleeping on the lobby couches, that’s a whole different ballgame. Because it got such heavy use and abuse, it was constantly in a shocking state. This was not helped by the fact that the shower drain seemed to only work in the wrong direction, not allowing waste water out, but letting used water from below back up in and flooding the floor with old soapy-grey scum. Yum! Thanks, Lonely Planet!

So yeah, much like our time in Delhi, Agra was about contrasts.

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From Amputees to Diamonds: Delhi in a Nutshell

Delhi

Our first day in Delhi captures India in a nutshell. We were up and out early, walking the streets and on the Metro while the city was still calm. The Delhi Metro is a newer, cleaner, more organized version of the NYC subway system. It was easy to navigate, air conditioned and featured a Women Only car, a great response to the city’s international reputation for being an unsafe place for women.

We followed the flow of traffic through the street from the train station to the Red Fort. Zach suggested that we move to the sidewalk instead of walking in the street with the rickshaws, bicycles, and cars. But as we squeezed between two rickshaws to get to the sidewalk, we were assaulted by the acrid smell of urine amidst a crowd of homeless people, waking up on from their night’s sleep against the buildings. We worked our way through the crowd of mats and sleeping bodies, which turned into an organized line of people sitting on the sidewalk, cradling bloodied limbs in dirty bandages. I tried not to look, but couldn’t escape the line as we were both headed in the direction of the Red Fort. Hundreds of people were waiting to see the man at the end of the block who was sitting on a cardboard box with a huge roll of gauze and a giant bottle of iodine next to him. My feet kept moving, but my mind was like a deer in headlights, absolutely stunned.

Zach loves his audio tour of the Red Fort!

Zach loves his audio tour of the Red Fort!

We crossed the street and stopped to breathe for a minute before continuing toward the Red Fort. The fort was big and old; but the fort as described by the audio tour was dazzling and majestic. Zach and I have developed a fondness for audio tours, as they bring back to life places that are skeletons of their former selves, ones whose fountains no longer work and that have been stripped of their mirrored ceilings and silk curtains.

We spent the afternoon exploring the side streets and spice market in Old Delhi until the internal fuel light went on. You are about to run out of gas, it said. At which point, we made our way back to the train, back to our comfort zone.

We got off the train in New Delhi and went window shopping for jewels. The jewelry collection at Mehrasons showroom was the most magnificent collection of bling I have ever laid eyes on. It beat the Diamond Exhibit at the Field Musuem, put Elizabeth Taylor’s collection to shame and made Tiffany’s look downright boring. Indian jewelry is a bit like Bollywood: a gaudy, dazzling affair. Earrings that look like peacock feathers, studded with emeralds, sapphires and diamonds and necklaces the size of a child’s bib sit next to necklaces made of gold strands woven to look like fabric, with jewels embroidered into them. For the second time that day, I was speechless. Well, almost speechless. “Could I see that?” I asked the salesman. “Sure. Why not?” He smiled as he lifted 50 grams of gold off of the mannequin. When I sighed at the price, he said “Don’t think about the money. It’s not about the money.”

But in Delhi, it is all about the money. You have heaps of it or you have none. I suppose this is the case in many places, but I’ve never seen the evidence in a more drastic way than our first day in Delhi, which will always be the day of amputees and diamonds.

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