I got scammed today. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I don’t feel like a lost a lot of money, and I feel like I helped a community. Still, the way I did this was by falling to a systematic scam.
My aim of today was to get the trekking permits I need in order to hike the Annapurna circuit (I leave early tomorrow morning), so today I was walking towards the Nepal Tourist Office (which is still a little way away).
Walking along the street (which in Nepal are crazy), a local man starts talking to me. He asks me where I’m from. At this point, this is just a guy making polite conversation. He tells me he’s a shoe maker, and that his name is “Sunny”. I notice that he’s wearing trainers. I wonder whether a “shoe maker” should be wearing nicer shoes, but I figure it’s not that important. He asks me where I’m heading, and I tell him I’m heading towards the Nepal Tourism Office. He says he will show me a shortcut.
At this point, Sunny is just a friendly guy showing me directions, and I’m not worried. He says “I’m not a guide, I don’t need money”, and I believe him at this point. I think he’s just helping. After a while I realise he’s taking me all the way to the Nepal Tourism Office and my guard goes up – I’m starting to think he has motives. He takes me via a temple briefly to show me and talks about how he believes in “good karma”, and that money is not important to him. He tells me that he’d love me to have lunch with his family after I get my permits.
I’m trying to work out which of the two is going on here:
- He’s trying to scam money out of me.
- He’s just a friendly guy who likes having me around so that he can practice English.
One of the first things I noticed about Sunny is that his English was really good. I have expectations that outside of the tourism industry, people do not speak good English, but this is only my first full day in Nepal, so I haven’t had time to work this out. I ask him how he learn English. He tells me that he learnt it through his job of shoe shining (a clarification).
When I get to the Nepal Tourism Office, I realise that I’m not getting rid of the guy easily, and my guard goes right up. I tell him that I’m going to be in the office for quite a while, and he says that this is ok and tells me to take my time. I relax a bit (mostly because I feel that it’s more useful that way). I take my time and fill in the paperwork. Sunny follows me throughout this process. I realise that he’s taking me to see his family. I realise that I’m probably going to have to give him money, but I feel still kind of in control of the situation at this point. I feel that I could just walk away at this point. Still I feel that everyone in the room, including me, senses that I’m being played.
I get my trekking permits. Sunny is still there. I figure that I don’t actually have that much to lose from seeing Sunny’s family, and he seems a friendly guy, so I agree. Along the way, he asks if I want to see a temple (“only ten minutes, sir”). I say “sure”, and I quickly find myself in a taxi with him.
This gives me some time to analyse the situation, and think about the amount that Sunny is trying to scam me. To start with, I’m worried that he’s got me, because I’m in a taxi. I wonder if the taxi driver is a friend of his, and was just planted there. I didn’t have the time to make sure that a price was agreed on before hand. I’m also trying to think about all the things that Sunny has said. I doubt he learnt English from just shoe shining. There was something else that didn’t quite add up, but I can’t remember now.
At the temple he takes me to, I end up paying the taxi driver 300 rupees (£2.34). Phew, this is actually a fair price for this taxi. Ok, he wasn’t trying to scam me here.
Sunny’s English seems to get worse during the day at his convenience – but he’s good at this game. If it wasn’t for my memory of surprise at him being so good at English at the start, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the deterioration, so subtle and slow it is.
He takes me around the temple and then into the slum where he lives. Here is his wife, step-brother and children. His step brother looks/acts ill. What I notice here is that no-one looks surprised to see me (including the children). This is a give away that he does this all the time. The children give the game away. If this were unusual, the children would show it. But also the level of poverty around me is shocking to me. His whole family live in one small dirty room, with one bed. Dirty water comes out of the wells. He tells me that the earthquake devastated his home and family (believable, but possibly false). He tells me that he’s been out of work since the Earthquake.
His wife gives me tea and food. Here’s the thing – at this point I kind of want to help the guy. Even though I realise he’s gaming me, the level of poverty is real. I kind of feel that something like £20-30 would mean a lot more to them than it does to me. In reality it’s not that much money for me. I realise I’m being gamed, but this whole thing is also an experience, uncomfortable and raw.
Sunny asks me if I could buy a Shoebox for him so that he can get back to work (I knew that this was coming). Given his poverty I tell him that I will help him, but don’t agree to outright buy the shoebox (Shoebox turns out to mean “complete shoe shining kit”). He tells me that he just wants a second hand one. How much can a shoe box cost?
I do try to call Sunny’s bluff a bit. I tell him I don’t believe that I’m the first tourist here and that no-one is surprised I am here. He tells me everyone is happy to see me (this is probably true. White guy = walking pile of money).
We go around the corner, and his friend (kid from his community) is trying to sell me the Shoebox, in good English, for 25,000 rupees (£195). I feel this is ridiculous. I tell him I won’t give him more than 2,500. I tell them that this is a game they’re playing, and that it’s rehearsed. He looks hurt, tells me that he won’t take my money, and the kid slowly lowers the price of the Shoebox (still to ridiculous levels). I won’t budge from 2,500 rupees.
After I refuse, he looks upset with a tear in his eye, and tells me he’s not a cheat. He asks me to buy groceries for him, and I agree to that (how much can groceries cost).
Turns out the grocery shop is also in his community. He goes to buy a small number of things, and the woman in the shop is trying to charge me 4500 rupees (£35). This is a ridiculous price to pay for groceries. I’m not buying this game. Ok, 4300 rupees she types on the calculator. Ok, I’m willing to give them 2,500 rupees, so I take the calculator and type 1,500 (they’re going to raise it anyway).
After he removes some things and argues some more, the woman types 2,500 (£19.50) rupees on the calculator. I know the groceries don’t cost this, but I feel that this is giving money to a community that needs it, give them the money and walk away.
I just wish it hadn’t been through a systematic scam.
It seems I’m not the only one:
I don’t feel bad about losing £20. I feel the community desperately needs it. They really do live in poverty that’s unimaginable in the west. But I don’t like being cheated.
So I’m so confused about how I should feel right now.