Guard or guide?

One of the annoying phrases I’ve grown used to in India is, “I’m a guard, not a guide.” This is the start of a sales pitch by a security guard for tour guide services in the place he’s supposed to be guarding.

Actually, it’s not the start of the sales pitch. The usual opening is for the guard to just walk up to you, and without any request or agreement, start talking to you about the site or exhibits. Usually he’s not going to add anything that isn’t already written on signs and labels, and any information that does go beyond that is of questionable accuracy anyway. So you don’t want him to do this, since he’ll expect some kind of payment afterwards if you go along with it. It’s when you first tell him, no, you don’t want his information, that he assures you he’s a “guard, not a guide”. That’s when he’ll start haggling for the price of his guide services.

If you’re providing guide services, and expecting payment for it, you are a guide. And while you’re guiding, or touting for it, you’re clearly not being a very good guard, either.

It’s difficult to know how to deal with the unsolicited information, because in some places the guards seem to be professional enough that when they offer information, it is simply to be helpful. The City Palace in Jaipur is one example: I might be wrong, and they might have asked other tourists to pay for information, but they never made any hint or suggestion of it to me.

So do you tell every guard or official, offering potentially useful or interesting information, to go away? That seems a bit dickish, when they might just be trying to help. But in other places there’s clearly an expectation of payment if you listen to the information, and being firm in your refusal is the only way to stop it happening. At Tughlaqabad Fort in south Delhi, we had to march smartly up a hill into the citadel area, faster than the guard could manage, to get away from him. An even more annoying case was in Amber Fort, near Jaipur, where we were exploring the maze-like warren of chambers, passages, stairs and courtyards behind the main palace. These were all apparently open and freely accessible. But a guard found us and started telling us which way to go. To get away from him, we snuck off down a side corridor and disappeared around a corner, but that route took us down to the courtyard leading to the exit, and we probably missed some good bits in the direction he’d been indicating.

The guard may feel that he’s being genuinely helpful by passing on his knowledge of the buildings to tourists and suggesting the route for them to take to see the best bits. And he may also feel there’s nothing wrong, and it’s quite fair and reasonable, to expect a small tip for that service. But while he’s wearing his uniform, there’s an inescapable power/authority relationship in play as well, and any suggestion of baksheesh is an abuse of that authority.

The dilemma is, you just don’t know: is he just being helpful and offering advice on the best way to go in the labyrinthine complex? is he trying to get you to pay for his guide services? or is he telling you not to go the way you’re going because it’s out of bounds to the public? With the language difficulty thrown in, it’s impossible to tell.

When a uniformed guard gestures to you not to go the way you’re going, your automatic reaction is to do as he says, at which point he regards you as having made a tacit agreement to accept his guide services. But as a dutiful citizen/tourist, you could be taking his suggestions as orders in his capacity as a guard, and obeying directions as to which areas you are or aren’t allowed to visit. You then find yourself being asked for money for your obedience, when all the guard has done is hindered, not enhanced, your experience.

It’s not the worst problem in India. It’s not even the worst form of corruption. But it’s something that the various national and state tourist authorities could be doing more about. The Archaeological Survey of India, the Department of Archaeology and Museums, Rajasthan, or the Department of Tourism, Rajasthan (in the case of Amber and Jaigarh Forts), for example, could print large, bold messages on the tickets, and put signposts around the sites, instructing tourists not to tip the guards, and to report any guard who requests tips. Any who do should be disciplined and, for repeated offences, fired. If the authorities continue to fail to tackle the problem, it can only be assumed that they’re complicit, knowing that they can pay their guards less because they’ll supplement their wages with guide services.

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