Having spent over a decade of my life on university campuses attempting to ascend the ivory tower of higher learning, I can assure you that most of the stereotypes about academia and its disciples are more fact than fiction. Actually, I’m guilty of perpetrating many of them myself, especially when it comes to the joke about the willingness of graduate students to do just about anything for free food, whether it’s volunteering for undesirable experiments or attending tedious departmental talks. Don’t believe me? In undergrad, brandishing an academic gown like a bull fighter’s cape, I once absconded with a two-pound slab of pâté from a university garden party, which my housemates and I then subsisted on for the better part of a week… Given that I wasn’t even a grad student at the time of The Great Pâté Heist of 2004, my affinity for free food seems hard coded into my DNA. It’s a skill (calling?) that has largely translated well to our budget backpacker lifestyle, but every so often, the prospect of a free meal short circuits my higher cognitive functions and leads to less desirable results…
Take, for instance, our visit to the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur. We spied its colorful, statue-encrusted gopuram (temple gate) during one of our urban rambles through the city, and we were delighted to discover the temple doles out meals to its lunchtime visitors. Pâté pilfering not withstanding, I do have some sense of decorum and dignity and try not to be utterly gauche in my pursuit of free food—Tony & I had already experienced the munificence of a free meal while in Malaysia, and not wanting to be greedy, we weren’t planning on partaking in another free meal unless someone offered one to us. Instead, we were quite content to gaze longingly at the plates of food whisked about by the penitent and simply soak up the buzzing, lively atmosphere of the temple. Although Hindu temples have a completely different aesthetic to Taiwanese temples, they are no less gaudy or garish and they instill within me a similar sense of discombobulation and wonder. We have never entered one of these places and not been immediately awash in a wave of welcome, and the air within crackles with a spiritual intensity that manages to both energize and soothe.
As if summoned by the rumbling of our stomachs, an older man, face plastered with a beaming crescent moon grin, approached us through the throng and stretched his wiry fingers around Tony’s upper arm. Tugging Tony alongside him, he stepped lightly towards the fragrant trays of food and vehemently insisted that we enjoy some. He thrust two plates at the men standing in front of steaming chafing dishes and grunted with satisfaction as a thick semolina porridge was ladled onto them and topped with a rich gravy laced with veggies. Turning back to us, he pressed the plates into our hands and gestured towards a curb for us to sit, urging us to “eat, eat!”
Like a hawk, he watched as we dipped the tips of our fingers into the soupy mixture and scooped a bit of it into our mouths. It was scorching hot, but absolutely delicious, the deep flavors and pungent spices belying the simplicity of the ingredients. We smiled up at him and murmured our delight, assuring him the food was good. He nodded and patted Tony’s shoulder, telling us we should eat as much as we liked. And then, when we were done, we could make a donation to the temple.
As catches go, this one seemed pretty fair. After all, even our meal at the Sikh temple in Melaka hadn’t been entirely free, and we had no problem contributing a few ringit toward the meal we were enjoying and the temple that was providing it. The fact that a charitable request had sounded an awful lot like a demand made me feel a little bit uneasy, but we had already accepted and begun to eat the food, so there was really nothing more we could do but nod our agreement and continue eating. Our new “friend” drifted back, the crowd of people slowly swallowing him up. We assumed that, having impressed upon us the importance of giving something back, he was leaving it up to us to follow through and do the right thing.
Miraculously, as we scraped up the last morsels of food from our plates, he reappeared, this time with a bag full of trinkets. He poured several of them into the palm of my hand and began to chatter on about what each one symbolized. At first I thought they were part of an offering we could make at one of the shrines, but I soon realized they were simply little tokens for us to keep. I said we would buy one, but he kept insisting we buy two. When I asked how much each little charm cost, he told us it was two for 20 MYR (~$7US). The steep price was enough to shake me from my food coma; I balked and shook my head, resolved that we would only purchase one. As good as the food had been, surely 10MYR was a sufficiently generous offering. We watched as our friendly chaperone morphed into an aggressive salesman before our very eyes, his gestures becoming more animated and his English teetering on the edge of incomprehension. When he insisted he would only sell us two tokens, I refused and said that we would not buy any if that was the case.
We edged our way toward the temple gates, anxious to escape a place that was quickly beginning to feel oppressive and overwhelming. As the din of traffic from the street began to mount, he relented and agreed we could just buy one. Swiftly, I plucked a tiny elephant-headed statue from the group and pressed a 10MYR note into his hands. Clutching our tiny purchase, we made our escape into a mass of flower sellers, letting the sea of chaos consume and conceal us.
Back in the refuge of our room, I lay on our bed, burnishing the tiny gold figurine between my fingers and reflecting on what happened. In retrospect, it was clear that none of the local temple goers had been purchasing similar trinkets and I mentioned to Tony that I thought we had been hoodwinked by a trickster who wasn’t even affiliated with the temple. This suspicion rankled me, partly because no one likes to be taken advantage of, but also because as a “seasoned traveler”, I felt we should be above falling prey to schemes of this ilk.
With a little more contemplation, however, I realized that our time in Asia has taught us to open ourselves up to others and place inordinate amounts of trust in strangers. On the whole, the rewards of this approach have been worth it, and I firmly believe that there are more good people than bad who will shepherd us on this journey, but obviously not every gamble pays off. We are learning to listen when our gut tells us someone can be trusted or, conversely, when a situation seems fishy. Traveling in Asia means striking a balance between vigilance and relaxing your guard. Quite honestly, the truth is that no matter how long you’ve been traveling, no matter how on your game you think you are, you’re going to get ripped off and taken for a ride every now and then. It’s rare we get fleeced, but when we do, I try to maintain perspective: in most cases, these scams or instances of being overcharged have such low-stakes it’s not worth getting overly upset about them. In this case, we hadn’t been duped into purchasing a bunch of worthless glass in an intricate gem scheme or been charged a crazy price for some mediocre tea. We were out $3US, and had gotten lunch, a story, and a little souvenir for our trouble. Though we had surely overpaid, the meal—and its surprise toy gift—was not only memorable, but still wound up being one of our cheapest while in Kuala Lumpur.
We decided we would carry our little talisman with us in the hopes he would ward off future scams and act as a reminder that, especially when it comes to free food, we should go with our guts. An internet search revealed our gilded guardian to be Ganesha, a Hindu god traditionally worshiped as the remover of obstacles, though he occasionally throws up impediments in the path of those who need them. May he guard us well and ensure that the hurdles between future scammers and our wallet are many indeed!
Tell Us: Have you ever been scammed? Do you carry any good luck charms with you on your travels?