While in Agra in 1998 we ended up in a very difficult situation which, looking back on I now believe shaped me into the person I am today. It all started with us needing to go somewhere for dinner as we had the most inedible meal the evening before and many of the restaurants surrounding the Taj Mahal looked equally unappetising. We therefore picked out a restaurant from the Rough Guide and took a rickshaw over to another part of Agra. We ended up getting there before the restaurant opened and therefore had about half an hour to waste. We started on a short walk only to have someone come up to us who persuaded us to go for a drink and a chat. As we had time to spare we agreed to go. We ended up in this very strange office: a taxi/travel company next door to the restaurant where we wanted to eat.
The conversation started in the normal way about what we did, what our parents did etc. It then turned a bit bizarre, as the conservation didn’t’ resemble any other that we had had since we got to India. Normally there are two reasons why people want to talk to you: firstly, to improve their English and secondly due to curiosity. Some people would also try to sell you things but that was normally very obvious and not what I would call a ‘conversation’.
These people did not fit into either category since they spoke very good English and were well travelled. Soon another guy came and joined us who was quite richly dressed. Without really understanding how, the conversation turned to our travels: where were we going and how much money did we have? He then told us about his business activities and how he gets people to courier things for him. Initially the conversation was all about transferring business documents to other destinations (remember this was before the common use of email!). He kept on stressing how surprised he was that we had not been offered a similar deal already. It eventually clicked that they were actually wanted us to carry something for them. What initially flashed through my mind was greed, followed by panic: what a stupid thing to even consider for the briefest of moments! I remember hoping the others were thinking the same thing as I was as we all just seemed to be agreeing with everything they were saying: anything for a quiet easy life.
They then came out with the details. What they wanted us to do was post a package, poste restante, to Australia, pick up the package when we got there and then deliver it. The package was meant to contain jewellery: they stressed that it was only the amount that could be legally brought into the country, about £1500 worth! For this we would get £700 once we delivered it. He kept on saying that we would see it being packed!
We eventually managed to leave stating that we would go back after we had eaten. I remember getting into the restaurant and the three of us just looking at each other almost speechless. The general reaction was ‘Oh My God!’. Thankfully we were all thinking exactly the same thing and we were all wondering if the others had been taken in by it. Looking back on it everything was so set up. The questions checked what we did, the kind of tight budget that we were on, whether we had good memories for faces, everything. It was such a smooth operation. Two guys got us talking then the main man turns up and its down to business – very slick.
Near the beginning of the conversation another Westerner was nearly brought in but was soon rushed out. It’s a bit worrying how many times they pull this stunt and get away with it. I wonder how many people fall for it. You have no idea what is going into the package: drugs, anything. If it was jewellery smuggling, then I doubt we would see anything near £700 on jewellery worth £1500.
Anyway after we had our meal we made a hasty retreat out of the restaurant and down the road. They did notice us and were shouting our names at us. However, they got the message when we completely ignored them that we were not willing to get involved.
While at the time it was quite a troubling experience I now consider it to be one of those life lessons. It made me realise that not everything is at it seems and to have a certain amount of distrust of people, particularly cold callers and salespeople. That is not to say that I’m distrustful of everyone I meet – just the ones that bring up business opportunities and/or finances so quickly after meeting them for the first time. I’m also a bit more reluctant to give away so much personal information to complete strangers, particularly those we knew nothing about!