09 July 2011

The Price to Ask of Sahibs

In order to use a public restroom in McLeod, you need to pay a few rupees. The exact amount that you pay, however, is not posted, and that is because it depends on the color of your skin and hair. A Tibetan or an Indian will pay three rupees to the man who guards the door; an American, Australian, or European will pay five.

Two rupees, of course, is a negligible cost that won't make a dent in anyone's wallet, but the issue is in the principle of the thing. Rudyard Kipling's character Kim in his novel of the same name is an Irish orphan raised in India. Hindi was his first language and his is intimately familiar with Indian culture. At one point in the text, however, he is wearing the clothes of a Sahib, or white boy, and asks a letter-writer how much he will charge for one letter. The letter-writer tells him four annas. Annoyed, Kim, speaking in the vernacular, calls his bluff--"That is the price to ask of Sahibs"--and demands a real quote. Eventually, he gets his letter for one and one half annas, less than half the Sahib price.

Unfortunately, I am not very good at bargaining. The best bargain I ever made was only an accident, and I didn't buy the item because I'd never intended to. As it turns out, genuine disinterest is an excellent way to encourage the shop owner to drop his price. Megan in my group is excellent at haggling, and so far five of our group members have purchased, for the same price, a pair of yoga pants which she reduced from 300 to 200 rupees. With fruit we've had worse luck--a papaya, two mangoes, and three bananas cost 110 rupees and the fruit stand man won't budge. The price doesn't add up (35 rupees for the papaya, mangoes cost 20 each, and three bananas for 15 should be 90) because apparently when you buy large amounts of fruit the price of mangoes increases. If you choose the right fruit guy, though, you can get three bananas for the price of two, and then you'll feel better.

It's hard to blame them, though, if their livelihood depends on manipulation of customers. One day, as I was leaving the broken ATM with the same amount of cash as before, I was waylaid by a man sitting at the side of the road. "Just look," he insisted, "I'm not asking you to buy anything." I hope I don't fall for that one again. He proceeded to show me his little embroidery hoop and handy rug-making tool. "You can write names, make pictures, all very easy." He went on and on, describing how the little rug pictures are made and handing me a little plastic bag with two rug-making tools. "Four hundred," he said, "and my pictures are for sale, too."

I considered the offer, thinking that my mother or her sister might like the little tools, but I told the man that I didn't know if I wanted it, I didn't even have enough rupees since the ATM was broken, and I had to go anyway. He asked me if I'd be back tomorrow. I made a noncommittal response and a mental note to avoid the road near the ATM for the next few days as I hurried off. As I walked, I realized that the tools weren't worth the expense since they would require fabric, embroidery hoops, and the proper sort of thread in addition, and who is to say that my mother and aunt want to make rug pictures anyway? I was relieved the next day when I didn't see the rug tool man.

A few days later, when I'd forgotten him entirely, the rug man appeared suddenly and waved his embroidery hoops in my face. "Ma'am, excuse me, you remember? You buy my tools?"

"I'm not interested, thank you," I said, taken aback by his abrupt and unwelcome appearance.

"Ma'am, you promised. I give it to you four hundred."

I had not promised. I kept walking.

"Okay, I make it 350."

"No, thank you, I am no longer interested."

But the rug man would not take no for an answer. He followed me and matched my quick pace.

"Three hundred."

"I'm not interested."

"Ma'am, I give you three hundred."

"No, thank you."

"Okay, for you, two fifty."

"No, thank you."

"Ma'am, you promised . . ."

He was following me across town. Sometimes I thought he'd given up when he would turn up again at my shoulder, naming his ever decreasing price and accusing me of breaking my promise. (Had I promised, I wondered? No, I am sure I would have thought twice before something so foolish. He must have misunderstood something I said.) Finally, he named his drastic, lowest price yet:

"One hundred. Ma'am, both for one hundred or you name your price."

If I had at all wanted to buy those rug making tools, that would have been the moment. I could have paid less than a quarter of the original price. Around two dollars. The great deal did not change the fact that I did not want those tools at any price, nor did it erase his original manipulation or the way he had been following and harassing me. I refused again and he gave up. A few days later, though, I saw him following another tourist, waving his embroidery hoop in her face. It was probably a bad week for business.

What I've learned from this: the best deals are the ones I didn't mean to make, and the best bargaining tactic is to remind the seller that you control your purse strings and won't buy unless the price is right. I'm sure I've ended up paying "Sahib prices" plenty of times. It's hard to avoid. I guess I'm just getting good karma for supporting local business owners.


  1. I really like fixed prices at stores where the employees get paid, regardless of whether I buy something. It's just a win-win situation all around. :)

  2. Kristen, how did I NOT know about this blog?! Goodness, I loved this post. My favorite thing to do at the markets in Cambodia is get super, super attached to an item, try to bargain it down as much as I possibly can and then tell them it's still too high for me and walk away. It's not long before they chase me down and give me a better deal. Works like a charm almost every time.

  3. Oh boy, this is all too familiar. I know the exact man you are talking about. Isn't that interesting though? One of the best ways to haggle is to simply say "no" and keep walking away.

    I liked your reference to Kim. I'm debating whether I will start reading that next.

  4. Rachel, Kim isn't as bad as you think :) It was probably in my head :)

    Lauren, that's a brilliant idea! The idea that they almost had a customer and lost them will definitely encourage shop owners to drop their prices. This Indian guy my friend Megan talked to said that they would try to charge us 4 or 5 times the real price of an item, so I think bargaining down to the real price is absolutely appropriate. If it's too low they won't sell it :)

    Elizabeth, I'm with you :)

  5. Kristen, I have experienced this plenty myself, and think you make some good points. I have been thinking a lot about this lately and so I will make a comment. I just want to give a disclaimer to assure you that my thoughts are nothing against you or what you have said... it's just what I have recently been thinking about.

    While I don't necessarily enjoy paying more for being a foreigner, I don't mind it too much either. In the end, it's still usually half the price or less that you would pay for the same thing in America.
    Most of the time I don't see vendors as people trying to swindle me as much as people just trying to make a decent living. White people in general do have more money and therefore can afford to pay a higher price. That's why vendors line the streets of McLeod selling basically the same things: handicrafts, jewelry and decorations. They're not trying to sell them to the other locals. They're trying to sell them to the tourists.

    The problem is, so many people are selling the same things that it's hard to sell many items in a day. Talking to my lawyer friend, Vinayak, who knows many of these vendors, he says that to live somewhat decently in McLeod you need to make around 400 rupees a day (a little under 10 dollars), but a lot of these vendors aren't even able to make that much. They can go a whole day without making a single sale. So as I see it, when we do want to buy something, talking them down to half their price is just making it harder for them to meet that daily need.

    Now I do agree that when I don't want to buy something, the persistent types can get on my nerves... and maybe there are some people who have plenty of money and are still out to swindle, but in most cases I think they're just trying to make a living. And if it takes near begging to get food on the table, some people are willing to go that far.

    There's a documentary that addresses this subject and just the idea of how white people (specifically tourists) effect the cultures they visit. It's definitely biased, but makes some good points. It's called "Cannibal Tours". It's not the same situation as McLeod, but still interesting to watch.

    Sorry this is so long, and I really really don't want to make you feel bad about anything you or any one else has said. I've just been thinking a lot about this, and so I guess I have a lot to say.