Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Contrabrand in Dali

The first couple of times it took me by surprise.
I turned back. It was a matronly Bai woman in her traditional blue dress and a frilly white headband, walking up to me. She came very close and whispered, “Smoke ganja?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“Maybe hashish?”
“No.” I smiled to take off the edge. She walked away.

We were in Dali, in southwest China. In the 2-3 days that we were there, essentially this same exchange played itself out about a dozen times. I took me a while to get over the incongruity of it – kindly-looking older women, so far removed from my stereotypes, peddling drugs. It was always women and they were all old, though I had difficulty in guessing the ages of Chinese women of certain age. Some were old enough that they reminded me of my grandmother.

Often they would sidle up to me so quietly that I wasn’t aware of them until they were at my arm. The way they said it was ‘Smoku ganja?’ There is a fairly large sight-seeing area around Dali, but all foreigners stayed in the two or three touristy streets in the Old town. So, in Fuxing street or Renming or the aptly-named Foreigner street, you’d meet everyone sooner or later. Some of these women would ask me multiple times a day. Once or twice I was tempted to ask the price purely out of curiosity. But I didn’t want to encourage the ladies and have them harangue me further. Also, I didn’t know what the penalty in China was for possessing narcotics.

After a few times, I became better at spotting the peddling grandmas, waving them away, always with a smile. Some of the ladies would see me and nod without approaching, knowing I wasn’t a customer. Others were quite persistent and came up to me and asked every time I passed by even though I always said no.

“Hey Rupal, are any ladies trying to sell you marijuana?” I asked my wife on our last day in Dali. Even when my wife and I were walking together it seemed that the Bai ladies managed to isolate me and ask.
“No. Not even once,” Rupal said.
I never learned what it was about me that made those ladies think that I’d be interested in their products.

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