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4-16-11 - Ripped Off in Dharamsala

At the little tea shop down the way a young French guy who's here for some months sat next to me. He does telemarketing back home, saying the same thing all day long. He meditates at the Ramana Ashram and the Kali temple which isn't much - can walk around it in a minute. Lot of sadhus and beggars around it. Never saw a foreigner there. He had a question about Buddhism. Is it true that fifteen hundred years after Christ died, that the Pope and the Dalai Lama made a deal with the devil?

The electricity hasn't gone off here for days. It almost always goes off for two hours in the afternoon. And it's hot, like over 95 in the afternoon. Wonder why. I'm thinking now of a cooler place, of the hill station called McLeod Ganj, where I sat at McCools with a friend.

Late October 2003

Let's get the moral here up front. Never hand your credit card to someone and let it get out of your sight.

Ulf was a Dane who had lived in India for around twenty-five years. He had a place in Lower Dharamsala that I'd drop by when I was down there. We'd smoke some hash and watch the monkeys crawl around on rooftops. He was always careful to latch his windows when we left. He's the one whom I took over to Dianne's to advise her on her legal problem with the landlord.

Ulf and I were drinking large beers at McCool's, the 2nd floor restaurant above the bus stand plaza in McLeod Ganj. I told him I needed to go across the way to get some money from my credit card at Paul Merchant’s, a good name for a money changer. There was no ATM in Dharamsala. One had to use a credit card with the choice of paying a money changer in Upper Dharamsala 4% or going down to the Baroda Bank in Lower Dharamsala to apply to get the money the next day for no fee or much less - I see both in my notes.

One thing I'd done before leaving the States which reduced the cost of using a credit card to get money was to put money on the credit card account. I'd just sold my home the previous spring and had paid off friends and secured debt but was unable to pay some unsecured credit card debt and my dear lawyer and travel consultant friend, T.H., told me about prepaying a credit card as a secure, fairly hidden place to keep money that would also mean one didn't have to make monthly payments while one was away. Expenses and withdrawals would just be deducted from the positive balance.

So I stood up to take this card with the positive balance across the plaza to the reputable and trustworthy money changer I'd used before. Ulf, however, suggested I go instead to the money changer on the second floor next door where the cinema is, that Sharma there gives him the same deal one can get at the bank - and right away -no waiting. Hmm. I could save one percent by going to him and Ulf, who knows everything, recommends him. OK. That's a couple of dollars.

I went there and met Sharma. He was heavyset, very dark, and fidgety. I said that Ulf had sent me because he was said to give such a good rate and I wanted ten thousand rupees and he said good and that yes, he'd give me a good rate. I gave him my MasterCard and he said that it would take a little time. I asked when would I get the money and he said in two days. I said that I needed money now or I'd go across the street and he said, “No problem. Come back in thirty minutes.”

I went back to McCools and hung out with Ulf. I asked him why did I have to come back in thirty minutes? Ulf shrugged. When I went back Sharma was there with a younger man. Sharma presented me with my MasterCard and two receipts to sign - one for five thousand and one for ten thousand. What? I said that I only wanted ten thousand now and he said that I’d said that I wanted money right away so that was the five thousand and the ten thousand he’d give me on Saturday. I said no deal. He said he'd already run the charges through and it would take a couple of days to reverse them. I sighed and said okay and I told him I couldn’t wait till Saturday for the rest and he said to come back in two days which would be Friday.

"Gee I wish I hadn't come here," I said. "So, how about the money then?" I asked after they both continued to just stand there.

Sharma nervously went through his pockets, pulled out some cash, and gave me a wad of bills. I counted it - 4750 rupees which seemed like too little and while I was thinking the younger guy pulled a hundred from that and I said, "Wait a minute here. You're trying to keep 350 out of 5000 rupee deal?" I sat down and quickly calculated. "That would be7% interest! I could have gone across the street to Paul Merchants and gotten the money for 4% in a few minutes! You told me I'd get a good deal here!"

The younger guy was unshaken but Sharma squirmed and gave me fifty rupees more.

"Not enough," I said. "Keep it coming."

He pulled out twenty more.

"Keep it coming," I said in a commanding voice.

He said that he’d give me the good deal on the 10,000 rupees that was coming in two days and I said that he at the most could take was 4%.

“This is coming out of my pocket,” he protested.

“No it’s not,” I said. “You’re just trying to see how much you can get out of me. Now do what you said you’d do.”

This went on with him handing me ten or so rupees at a time until I agreed that he could keep 10 rupees over the 4% which I pointed out made it 4.2%.

I went back to McCloo’s and told Ulf what had happened and how strange Sharma had acted - he was jumpy and creepy.

Ulf shook his head. "Sharma's an old black marketer and tends to be sort of weird. That other guy is his son. He's more slick."

I said I guess there was nothing I could do now but I wished to hell I'd gone to Paul Merchant's.

Ulf said that maybe he'd made a mistake in sending me to Sharma and that he'd go talk to him and see if he could get this straightened out.

Ulf's visit to Sharma didn't help. I went back to Sharma's on Friday at noon. He wasn't there. His son said to come back in thirty minutes. When I did I was told to come back later, that Sharma was in Bagsu down the road, at another business of his. His son was evasive about the location of that other business. I came back later a few times until the place was being closed and was told by his son that he was very sorry but that I’d have to come back the next day.

I came back on Saturday and met with Sharma who said to wait. He kept making phone calls and saying to wait - that the money was coming from Lower Dharamsala. I said that I thought that he had plenty of money there and to please give me my money right away.

There was a man with him who asked me why I’d gotten my money this way instead of right on the spot and I told him that Sharma had told me he'd get me ten thousand right away but had put through two charges for more than I'd asked for with the delay on the ten thousand and told me he was giving me the best deal this way. The man looked puzzled, turned to Sharma, spoke angrily with him and walked out upset.

Sharma acted erratic, kept jerkily punching his phone and talking rapidly in Hindi, which I thought he was doing as an act, then telling me to wait. Each action ended with a request to wait. Finally, after a few hours, he said that the banks were closed due to the Divali festival and that he could do nothing.

That made me blow up. If they were closed for the festival he must have known that the whole time I was sitting there. "Why are you torturing me this way? Why don't you tell the truth! Are you just a crook?!"

That night was Divali, the Festival of Lights. I joined Ulf on the roof of a hotel in Lower Dharamsala so we could enjoy the fireworks display across the city. He said it wasn't safe to go out because boys liked to throw firecrackers at each other and random passers-by.

I returned to Sharma's on Monday at about eleven in the morning with Ulf and Sharma told me that he had to go to the bank to get my money and asked if I could return at four. I protested and Ulf said that he surely cold do better than that but I finally gave in and we agreed to meet at three. I returned at 2:30 and Sharma said that he was still waiting for the money and that it would be there at three. He tried to get me to come back the next day but I said that I was leaving for Delhi that night (which wasn’t true- I had a ticket out for the next night).

He was doing business with someone else and I wouldn't let them talk, started to make a fuss about him being a crook and he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out some money and give it to me counting it out. It was 4500 rupees. I demanded he give it all. He picked up the phone, punched at it, spoke to someone, and said to come back in and hour. I came back in an hour with Ulf and, after more strangeness, he gave me 4400 rupees bringing the total he'd given me to 8900.

I protested. Ulf went to get an Indian businessman friend named Dodhi whom he said ha done business with Sharma for years. They came in together thirty minutes later. It was the same guy who' yelled at Sharma on Saturday. Ulf introduced us - Dodhi, David

Dodhi was upset too and spoke angrily to Sharma but eventually said he couldn’t help. He and Ulf left me there to yell at Sharma by myself. Sharma left and went to talk to the people next door (as if he were borrowing money) and I went out on the landing where people come up to go to the cinema and some of the young Indian fellows who work there shook their heads and told me that this sort of thing happens all the time with Sharma.

Sharma came back inside and gave me some more money and I demanded more and that kept going till he’d kept only 5% and then I kept yelling at him till he had only 4%..

Then I smiled and said, "Wow, look at what we went through for that!" He looked at me puzzled. "Your four percent plus the 4.2% from before. That's 610 rupees. You've worked very hard for that and under such stress. And I've worked hard to get my money and pay you that." I said it had been an interesting experience having this transaction with him. That I was indebted to him for what I had learned. He stood there shaking and not seeming to comprehend what I was saying. Maybe he was thinking that I had more to learn.

More Ripped off in Dharamsala to come.

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