Shopping in India can be a nuisance, a joy - and a mystery. On a trip around the Golden Triangle, I bought a few pretty boxes with elephants and maharajas painted on them. I found them in Delhi at the Government-sponsored, covered market (fixed prices and no beggars).

First you approach the bored man behind the shop counter at the Central Cottage Industries Emporium with your intended purchase. He fills out a receipt in triplicate and gives you the receipt but not your purchase.

Then you go off and repeat the process from the many other shops touting anything from beautiful soft pashminas to inlaid tables to spicy teas or miniatures of Ganesha, the Hindu deity with the elephant head.

When finished shopping, possibly several hours later, you must then find the correct counter to pass in your handful of receipts and the money (being careful not to queue as I did in the wrong place for ages). You are given more receipts but, again, not your purchases.


Finally, you must find the counter where you hand over these new receipts. There is a great flurry of stamping but here they do actually give you your purchases, now magically and thoroughly wrapped in brown paper so you can't tell if they're what you bought.

Though not always. My shopping buddy was a bit concerned to find her nice pearly white bedspread, which was put in a big bag but sadly not thoroughly wrapped in brown paper, had been accidentally partially stamped in the stamping frenzy.

The two men behind the counter denied they had anything to do with it.

After a bit of heated discussion one got some window cleaner which he sprayed on the ink stain and smudged at with a cloth. My buddy grabbed her bedspread and took it away.

You can instead, of course, shop from the busy shops on the streets where you encounter the fun of bartering, and unavoidable is the quite mind-boggling intensity of the street hawkers.

It can be gratifying buying from them, though, because you get the impression that if you do purchase, say, the mini-cobra in a tiny basket inside the pretty pink bag covered with embroidery and tiny mirrors for 100 rupees, the guy and his family might get to eat that night.

Though if you really want the mini-cobra in the basket it might pay to check it's still in there when he hands it over. Though for 100 rupees (about $2.35) who can complain?

Catherine Masters travelled in India with Insight Vacations, with assistance from Singapore Airlines.