It was the exact type of experience in India I knew to steer far clear of.
But it’s amazing what little sleep, just wanting to get a job done, and wanting to get on with things will do to someone. I’m still not sure if it’s an experience I regret doing… it’s just something that happened.
On our last day in Delhi, my friend and I spent hours shopping for saris but didn’t have enough time to get blouses made before jetting off to Jaipur for the next few days. Our hostel sent a rickshaw to pick us up at the airport and when he heard that we needed sari blouses, he was all for helping us out.
That’s not a warning sign, just so you know. Rickshaw drivers make the most money when they get hired out for an entire day and so what they really want isn’t for quick trips like a taxi, but for you to use their services for the entire day. And, it’s more economic for travelers since you pay around the same price, but you always know you have a ride waiting for you through the day.
The first warning sign came when he took us to possibly the most expensive tailor he could find. I have no doubt that the tailor was good. He showed us the piping work he completed, he showed us back designs and how he could complete the blouse. He took time to measure us carefully.
But when he told us the price for making the blouse, I gasped. Because the price for two blouses was almost as much as it was for me to buy one of my saris. My friend was even more upset and tried to wheel and deal, but it was clear that was the set price.
“Sorry,” we told them after more discussion, “but the reality is the only time we’ll wear our sari blouses is when we go to this wedding. We don’t need the most expensive or most beautiful of blouses.”
Later, we would regret this particular decision.
The rickshaw driver came with us to the tailor to help us negotiate and followed us when we piled back into the rickshaw, mumbling about where to find a tailor.
“Thank you for taking us,” we told him. “But we’re really not interested in paying that much for something we’ll only wear once. We’d only want to pay 400 or 500 rupees absolute tops.”
That was stupid mistake number one, if you want to keep track.
“There are some house tailors who could do it,” he told us.
“Could you take us to the place where saris are sold?” We asked—usually where there are sari shops, there are tailors.
“I don’t know anyone around there, but let me make a call,” he said.
After a few moments of speaking to a friend on the phone, he said, “He told me that there’s a house tailor who could do it.”
In defeat and tired, we agreed to be taken to the house tailor.
The house tailor was warning sign number two that we ignored out of exhaustion and just wanting to get the blouses done in time for the wedding. We had minimal days left to do so.
He pulled us through the city through back alleys and side streets—side streets where he greeted people he knew. So much for this being ‘some’ house tailor he didn’t know. In the back of the rickshaw, I wrote a note to my friend, telling her the man definitely knew this tailor. But if it got us our blouses, did it really matter who sewed them?
He cut then engine, and we followed him up the steps to a house.
Inside, a group of girls huddled around giggling as they saw us. We were ushered to sit on a couch in a large open room as we waited for some women to come help us with the blouses.
The girls gathered around touching our hair, giving is chai tea until we were ushered into a back room with two middle aged women with wrinkly, warm faces. An older girl grabbed a bin from a shelf and threw sari blouses at us to try on.
We quickly striped down until we found one that fit us relatively well, until I realized with horror that they weren’t taking any measurements and would just use this blouse as their guide.
That was red flag number three.
Making a sari blouse is by no means simple and measurements are a must in order to make the blouse fit you correctly. You should be able to move your arms freely, it should be tight around your ribcage, and streamlined to your particular body. The blouse that happened to fit both my friend and I was a sort of anomaly—we didn’t have the same body shape at all.
We didn’t know that this was a red flag, however.
But, we were quickly ushered from the room and told the blouses would be ready to pick up the next day. During this time, the children insisted on braiding our hair, having an impromptu dance party, and taking us to the rooftop to see their chickens as our driver went to get the fabric needed to line the fabric. A few of the bare-footed children could speak a very small amount of English and communicated to us that the driver was an uncle of theirs (one of many connected to the hostel we stayed at).
That was red flag number four. This wasn’t some random house we were taken to. This was family of the driver—and yet he acted as though it was a mystery location in order to have us get our blouses made by his family.
Frankly, I didn’t care about this. As long as the blouses were decently made for the wedding in two days, I was okay with a family tailor.
After a few hours, we were taken back to our hostel with promises to pick up the blouses the next day in the evening.
The next day came and the tuk tuk driver our hostel hired for us that day was different than the one who took us to get the blouses made. When we expressed this concern to the hostel staff, they reassured us that our driver would bring us the blouses in the evening and they would arrange everything (they were good on their word, so there’s no red flag here, if you’re wondering).
We spent the entire day site-seeing in Jaipur when two things occurred to us: we never set a price for the blouses. And we were a bit upset at how much time it took us to be at the house playing with the children when there were so many things to be done in Jaipur.
By some strange turn of events, our tuk tuk driver (a cousin to the one from yesterday) took us to meet with the other one. Night already had begun to fall on the city and we just narrowly escaped from a strange situation with our tuk tuk driver attempting to take us on a double date and were in no mood for running around with children. The driver insisted on taking us to the house to pick up the blouses (and to no doubt tug on our heartstrings), but we asked him to drop them off at the hostel and we would pay then.
Suddenly, things got more strange when he wanted the payment for the blouses—500 rupees each. We told him we never agreed to that or told him we would pay that price (if you’re wondering 250 rupees is about average for getting a blouse made in India). He reminded us about the conversation from the previous day, when we said the most we would pay was 500 rupees. We reminded him that the number was the most we would pay some random person. We hadn’t been referring to him or this situation, but we would try on the blouses later and pay 500 if they were worth it.
The driver who dropped the blouses off was not him, but the third driver of the hostel, another cousin. We thanked him and told him to wait for payment as we tried on the blouses.
I tried on my first blouse and frowned. It was at least an inch too large around the waistband, the sleeves were unbelievably tight, and the sides billowed out instead of being close to the body. On top of that, the stitch-work was shoddy on the sleeves and basically ruined a very pretty design.
“I can’t wear this,” my friend said, and I looked up to see her blouse.
It was easily five times too big for her, nearly falling off her body.
“No,” I said, anger beginning to well up in me—more at our own stupidity than anything else. “No, you can’t.”
I tried on the second blouse and found it to be similarly ill-made.
Two girls in the room, both from Sri Lanka and familiar with wearing saris and blouses, gasped about how horribly-made the blouses were.
“Who did these?” they demanded to know.
We explained the situation and that the driver waited outside for payment.
They went with us to explain to him exactly what was wrong with the blouses. He looked like a lost puppy with wide eyes as four women yelled at him about how bad the blouses were.
I insisted we call the original driver after the first one left like a wounded puppy.
After finally reaching him on the phone, I told him in a serious, take-no-prisoners tone exactly what was wrong with each of the blouses.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” he insisted. “I”ll pick you up in the morning and take you to get them fixed.”
“We aren’t paying 500 rupees each,” I told him.
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow morning,” he said.
“No,” I told him, “We’re talking about it now. These blouses aren’t even worth 100 rupees each. We aren’t paying that much. I’m telling you this, not asking you this.”
He made some other mild forms of protest and told us he would pick us up in the morning at 9 am.
“At 9 am,” I said. “Not late.”
That’s the thing about drivers in India—9 am quickly turned into 9:30 or 9:45.
“Not late,” he agreed.
He was late. Thirty minutes late the next morning.
We greeted him with stone-cold faces. We were silent on the drive to the house as we clutched out blouses in our hands and cold air whipped across our face.
Soon we were back in that room with the two women sitting at their sewing machine. We tried on blouses again and again as they tried to fix them. Where the first day there were smiles and fun, this time there were none.
When the final stitches went into one of the blouses after the last try-on, the driver came in and commented on how unhappy I looked, worry evident in his own face—his livelihood was tied to this deal, but I wasn’t trying to mess with that. I just wanted the product we had been promised.
We thanked the women solemnly for their work and went with the driver to a bank to exchange more money to pay for the blouses. When we finally got to the hostel, we paid him for his time, and gave him 300 rupees each.
“It’s way more than they’re worth, and they’re still not even decent blouses,” we explained. “And, frankly, our time was wasted greatly in going to and from this. It just wasn’t worth it.”
He took the money just as solemnly and apologized, and begged that we didn’t complain.
We wouldn’t, we promised, and we didn’t. Because shoddy blouse-making wasn’t a reflection on his driving and tourism skills— it was his underestimating what exactly his passengers wanted and trying to make a few extra dollars for his family, which is something we could understand. Just next time, make sure the family was up to the work he gave them.
It was a strange experience, and a learning experience. I learned don’t get how tired or fed-up you are to cloud your judgement. Be deadly serious about something to show you mean business, and don’t be walked completely over in any situation. What helped us on that final morning was we also had the Sri Lanka girls explain to our driver what exactly was wrong with the blouses and why they weren’t worth that much—get local assistance if needed. I learned a lot from the experience, especially since I had previously been confident of how well I knew how to deal with situations in India. And the problem of this experience was it was born out of my own stupidity, going against things I always advised others not to do.
We got the blouses made in time for the wedding, though not well, the woman who draped our saris was able to do so in such a way to cover the blouses as much as possible.
Ever have a strange, somewhat discouraging experience when traveling abroad?