EVER BEEN HAD ?
By Pam Hobbs
I still can't believe I fell for it. I am, after all, a world traveller. I have witnessed scams
in the best of travel destinations. Didn't I watch in disbelief at the gullibility of an American
greedily changing his U.S. currency on a Budapest street corner, only to be left holding a wad of
newspaper cuttings snug between two genuine bills ? In Bogota I wasn't fooled for a moment by
the youngster anxious to exchange his Granny's jade ring for the bus fare home to a dying
mother. I smiled when my guide in Buenos Aires thought me so naive he must warn about the
pigeon doo-doo on the back of my shoulder. I mean, we all know that one don't we ? It's where a
kind young chap wipes the mess of your shoulder. You twist around to see what it is, and kind-person's mate nips in to relieve you of all your visible valuables.
From time to time I warn my fellow travellers of legal robbers. The carpet sellers who
prey on our ignorance of wool and silk and blends. The merchant who sold my friend an
intricately inlaid marble table for $l,000, then shipped her a wood and tile job she could have
bought in Toronto for $60. The fake name brands we know can't be the real McCoy, not at the
prices we pay. But avarice is a powerful persuader. What tourist doesn't want to return home and
show off some treasure they bargained down for a ridiculous sum ?
So now we are walking through the narrow alleys of Old Jerusalem. "Don't make eye
contact" I tell my husband. "We're here for postcards." We pass two brothers, apparently dozing
outside their store. The younger of the pair leaves his chair to catch up with us. "Excuse me,
people. Forgive me, but I hear you speak English ?" "Yes" we answer together, good little
Canadians not wanting to offend. He is very apologetic. "I wonder, please, could you help...." It
seems his shop has just re-opened after remodelling. He wants to put a sign overhead. Should it
read: "Grand Opening" followed by "Special prices" or "Now Open for Business." He lifts a
cardboard sign that reads "Grand Opnin" and asks if we would be so kind as to write it properly
on a piece of paper. The three of us, conspirators now, agree to "Grand Opening Following
Renovations. Special Prices." He beams. His brother wakes up, insists on making me an earring.
No charge. It's for my kindness. I tell him "no thanks" because we have a lunch date. We're here
to buy postcards of holy sites for my sister.
In the dim little shop we sit across from Hassan. Yes, we are on first name basis now.
Jolly friends, he says. Raising eyes towards heaven, he confides how he is blessed this day. His
wife gave him a son. At 6.13 this morning. After four daughters. The boy weighs three kilos 26
grams, born by caesarian section. He shows me a picture of his four daughters, including twins. I
tell him we have twins. He is thrilled. "See, we have this bond" he declares. (For someone who
can't spell Grand Opening, he has developed an uncanny command of English.) The earring,
supposedly made of Eilat stone and malakite is put on my right ear. It looks so beautiful, he says,
he must make me another.
We will have tea. He wants to show me his latest design. I wouldn't spoil his blessed
day for him, but in truth my little granddaughter has made similar necklaces. It happens to match
my earrings. He puts it around my neck, then claps his hands in delight. "See how it compliments
my beautiful blouse." I am wearing a faded khaki travel shirt.
In New York, or so we're told, Hassan sells a piece like this for $500. My husband
thinks he's seen similar necklaces in Holt Renfrew. And it is our anniversary. Hassan promised
his wife the first customer of the day would have a big discount.... Eventually Michael pays U.S.
$175, plus VAT which Hassan forgets to write as such on the bill so we can't claim a refund at
the airport. He asks if we have a business card to put on his wall, along with a dozen or so others
Two hours later at the King David Hotel I run into a fellow travel-writer, Gerald,
and his wife Betty. "We were in that jewellery shop, saw your card, figured it was o.k." Betty
said. "We wrote out his sign after he explained how you didn't have time to do it." "Uh uh". I
pulled them aside. "By chance, did his wife give birth to a son this morning, after four daughters
?" Gerald shook his head. "No. It's his brother's wife. A daughter after three sons.
Three kilos 26 grams. Caesarian..." "And dare I ask what you paid for their one-of-a-kind
designer necklace ?" "$75."
A month later I was seated next to Gerald at a media lunch. He told me Betty's
necklace had broken so she took it to a local jeweller for repair. "Did she ask its value ?" I
wanted to know. "'Fraid so" he grinned. "$3. $5 tops." I am no longer hungry.