Travel and Shopping Silver Winner: Madam, You Are Not good

by Megan Lyles

Child vendors and retail therapy.

I arrived in Goa, India in the awkward pause between the monsoon season and the tourist season. It was like arriving at a party while the host is in his bathrobe pouring out bowls of chips. Hotels were vacant and restaurants empty. Mornings on the wide, deserted beaches were warm and pleasant, but every afternoon there came a period of leftover monsoon, during which I sat alone in one empty restaurant or another, alternately reading and staring at the crashing rain.

I met the girls on my first day in Baga Beach, as I was browsing through some earrings at an open-air shop. They came jingling and rattling along the path, laden with bundles, scarves blowing behind them like fantastic plumage. “Those girls are trouble,” chuckled the grown-up shop man. “They will bother you every day. Tell them you will look at their things at the end.” They came up to me immediately, all big dark eyes and bare feet, holding up boxes and baubles. The youngest was the prettiest. She held a scarf up to me with a quiet little smile, until the oldest girl pushed her back, saying curtly, “not her” and holding up her own scarf, “look, you buy.” Latching on to the man’s advice, I told them I would look at the end, before I left. They accepted this easily enough.

I saw the girls several times a day. Each encounter brought a chorus of high-pitched reminders of, “Madam, you promised you will look before you go!” I hated that they called me Madam. In Calcutta and in Delhi, everyone, even the beggars, vendors, and touts, had called me Sister or Auntie, and it had felt so much warmer.

I was lonely in Goa. I spent the first night in a big bed in the center of a large drafty room, its high peaked ceiling a perfect haunt for spiders. Returning to the room at twilight meant running a gauntlet of bony stray dogs, who barked and growled from the shadows just out of sight. No one else was staying at the guesthouse and I didn’t see the owner again once he’d taken my money and given me my key. I never found the shower.

The next day, I moved to another guesthouse, this one consisting of several small cabins surrounding a central outdoor common area where one could buy sodas and sit at little tables. It was friendlier here, but I was still the only guest.

The charm of my little beach room was outweighed by its grubbiness. The toilet stood on a platform in the corner, separated from the head of the bed by a low concrete wall, the water a thick, murky brown. The hippie tie-died flat sheet spread over the typical hard Indian mattress was musty and had obviously been slept on more than once. I washed the sheet in the sink and hung it to dry on a rope stretched across the room, and poured buckets of water into the toilet until it flushed clean. I was glad to have something to do.

It rained in the evening and I sat under the thatched roof of an open-air restaurant overlooking the sea, waiting for the rain to stop. The staff had disappeared somewhere in the back. There were a few other misfit foreigners scattered around the tables, but no one seemed interested in mingling. An old European man sat alone at a table playing chess against himself and periodically spitting out into the rain. I nursed a Thums Up and wrote in my journal. I had nothing new to say, but didn’t want to read my book for fear of finishing it and having nothing to read. It seemed the rain would never stop, so finally I decided to run for it.

I paused for a moment just inside the fringe of water pouring from the eaves, and then plunged out into the rain, which was louder and colder than I’d expected. I was soaked almost immediately as I slip-slopped along the mud path back to my hotel, holding my daypack over my head. Someone laughed as I skidded by, my long skirt tangling around my wet ankles. Back in my room, the rain was clamorous on the tin roof. I hung my wet clothes on the rope, thinking that if I’d been with someone else, it would have been a giddy adventure (Remember the time we got caught in that Indian monsoon?) but I was alone. I silently wiped the mud flecks off my calves and went to bed early. At least my sheet now smelled pleasantly of Pears glycerin soap.

The next day I sat looking at the sunset with a package of tea biscuits. The girls clustered around me, and I shared my biscuits with them. We sat in companionable – and unprecedented –  silence. When the biscuits were finished and the sun had set, I told them I was leaving tomorrow and that I would look at their goods then.

They were waiting for me the next day. The oldest girl led me off through a field behind my hotel, first here, then there. When she had chosen the perfect grassy spot she squatted down, gesturing me to do the same, and they opened their bundles, spilling out little heaps of jumbled knickknacks. The items were clearly rejects from their parents’ shops and street stalls, decorative boxes with misaligned hasps, scarves with frayed edges, jewelry with clouded, poorly glued stones.

“You buy this one,” the leader said, handing me a rather hideous metal box with the shape of an elephant beaten onto the lid. I looked at everything carefully. I wanted very much to buy something, but everything was either ugly or broken. After combing through everything twice, I stood up and said that I had looked, as promised, but hadn’t seen anything I wanted. The girls stood up too, genuine shock on their little faces as I turned to go. It was a mistake, and I realized it immediately.

“Madam!” the oldest girl called after me, shrilly. “Madam, you are not good!”

She was right. I was not good. I should have bought something. If I was going to make my buying decision based solely on the objective value and desirability of the items on offer, I should have looked and declined immediately. If I was going to hold them off for a week, I should have just gone ahead and bought something, anything. At just a few rupees, it isn’t about whether or not I actually want a tiny box with an elephant on top, that doesn’t quite close properly.  It’s about helping this little girl support her family through honest means. It’s about giving something back to the country I’m traveling in. It’s about making a connection, even just a momentary one. Those little girls were the closest I had to friends in Goa. Their enthusiastic greetings had kept me from feeling completely invisible.

But I was embarrassed, so I kept going, walking back to my room where I would collect my backpack and get a scooter ride back to the bus that would take me back to Panaji so that I could go somewhere else.

Even now when I think of that day, I still feel a curdling shame. The result of that shame is that I have, over the ensuing years, amassed a large collection of bits and bobs from around the world, all bought from child vendors with the echo of that little girl’s voice in my ears. I’ve bought gum and candy, some of which I ate, some of which I discreetly disposed of, grainy postcards depicting local attractions, some mailed to friends, some tucked away in whatever book I was reading at the time. I’ve bought figurines, matchstick dolls, magnets, holy cards, cards with pictures of white people clasped in amorous embrace, captioned with gooey poems in Spanish, CDs of local music, and heaps and heaps of bracelets. Woven bracelets, friendship bracelets, bracelets with beads made of glass, or seeds, or plastic flowers, all of them sold by small children with dirty hands and hopeful eyes, none of it costing more than a few cents per item.

I’ve said no plenty of times. It’s not possible to buy from every kid out there, nor is it my obligation. Sometimes the kids are too persistent, employing harsh, discordant nagging at places of quiet reflection, and sometimes they’re jaded and manipulative, trying their luck with obvious junk and weak-hearted foreigners.  But when I do buy, it’s enjoyable. It’s a brief transaction, not just of money and goods, but of humanity. A moment to exchange a few words and a smile with another human being.

Nine years after my visit to India I married Michael, a man who “got it” much easier than I did, an open-hearted man who instinctively knew what I had had to learn over time. He asks names and shakes hands and treats these kids like the young businesspeople they are, leaving them smiling and proud of a successful transaction. For our honeymoon, we went to Thailand and Cambodia, mainly because we wanted to see Angkor Wat. Emerging after a few hours of wandering around that stunning complex, we found our tuk-tuk and prepared to head back to the town of Siem Reap for the evening. A young girl with an armload of bracelets came up to me just as our driver, Mr. Son, climbed onto his scooter. I showed her the bracelets I’d already bought. “But these are different,” the girl pointed out. “See, those are thick, these are thin.” I smiled. “Ok,” I said, reaching into my pocket. The driver started to pull away.

“Pou!” called the girl (Uncle!)

“Mr. Son, wait!” called my new husband.

The driver stopped, and I handed the girl a dollar bill and received in exchange a set of ten woven straw bracelets (thin) and a big smile.

“Good luck,” the girl said to me. She waved heartily as we pulled out of the lot and onto the road back to town.

I like these straw bracelets, and wear the thick and thin ones mixed together. When I wear them, I often find myself absently fidgeting with them, spinning them around my wrist, or sliding them up and over each other. Sometimes I look down at them and think about the little girl I bought them from and remind myself to be good.

Megan Lyles is a native New Yorker who has also lived in San Francisco. She now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son and is working on a book about her yearlong bus trip from New York to Buenos Aires.

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