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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Culture # 9: Now They Tell Me…Tips on Getting Ripped Off

It is part of the charm of the place that prices and sales are interactions and conversations between people, not just transactions. I talk all about it of course in the Personal Touch.

But talking about buying stuff in India could not be complete without a story of getting ripped off. Getting beaten in bargaining, over-charged or generally ripped off is a rite of passage for India (and most travel destinations) and part of the experience.

Before I delve into the story though, I would like to stake out my stance briefly that despite Western ire and distaste at such practices, getting taken in when paying for something isn’t really a question of honesty or goodwill on the part of the salesperson. It comes from a different value and perspective on the transaction of selling stuff and one that takes the “buyer beware” caveat and the global economic principles of “what the market will bear” to its natural conclusion. If they can get away with a price or sell you something lower quality, they can, and it is just as much your responsibility as it was theirs. If you are willing to pay the price, then that was fair market value at that moment. The idea of being “ripped off” is based on the idea that you are a victim rather than a full player, which is not really valid here. You are expected to hold up your end by knowing what you want and asking questions. It is a consistent system that just goes against you if you don’t know all the rules.

A simple example of the consistency of the system that might be easiest to visualize is actually from the shoulder-to-shoulder diversity found in Vancouver and other major North American cities. If you shop in Chinatown on Main Street in Vancouver, the produce shops are known for selling produce cheaply. But, in a departure from the glitzier supermarket stores a few streets over, the quality of the produce will also vary more widely. Sure enough, in concert with this, is the common stereotype sight of the old Chinese women poring intently (and slowly) over every cantaloupe and tomato, picking out the good ones one by one. Next door, other shopkeepers loudly hawk their wares and services and the same old women fire questions (also loudly) of where this comes from or the quality of that, pushing the hawkers back on exactly what they are offering. Taken together the system is consistent and works and patterns how much of the world shops. Conversely, North American standard has become the (dare I say lazy) want of being able to grab a basket full of tomatoes (or whatever) without looking and without asking questions and therefore demanding the store quality is good and consistent enough to support this convenience of not needing to pay attention. See, again consistent.

The problem with travellers and expats is that the systems don’t match up. We get charged more and ripped off because we can be and because we don’t know the price and worth of things or how to ask. We get hassled and pushed by aggressive touts more because we don’t have a strong understanding of the area and value and lack understanding of the language and/or cultural differences to ask the right questions. It is made worse that in most Western cultures we are not used to asking a dozen of questions before buying anything. Here we are expected to be sophisticated in bargaining – it is just what is expected – and since we aren’t, we lose sometimes (OK, a lot of the time). It is admittedly somewhat taking advantage our ignorance for gain and it can be galling when you, yourself, get taken, but it really isn’t personal. In the end, it is a simply a scaled-up version of what goes on with everyone and exaggerated because we can afford it and like annoying advertising or spam, perpetuates because, like it or not, it must works enough of the time.

So I’m not immune of course and have many examples of “now they tell me...” I recall for example getting caught by the common “art student scam” in Beijing the first day, much to my later embarrassment. I recall getting great prices for bracelets in Lhasa, but marked up prices for sandals in Bangkok. But being in India, I thought I’d share a recent story from here. It is amusing and even has a lesson at the end.

So having been here 4 months now and, having been travelling before, I have actually done quite well with avoiding getting taken by unscrupulous vendors. Sure, there may be an occasional foreigner mark-up (being charged an extra 10 or 20 rupees for something), but I don’t totally disagree with that as long as it is not unreasonable, the foreign currency buying power being so dramatic. And whether I agree with it or not, if you are not a local and speak Tamil (meaning from-away Indians also get similar treatment) it is nearly impossible to bargain down to the local price for auto rickshaws, even if you know what that price should be. Those are just the rules of the game. But generally I have done well in holding my own and holding onto my cash.

But I ruined my whole streak in one fell swoop in one a bad day last week.

I got out of the auto coming home after work, picked up some rum at the wine shop (what they call all liquor stores) and then picked up some new razor blades and shaving cream at another shop. Nothing unusual.

At the checkout for the shaving stuff, the computer tallies everything, I go to pay and then realise I don’t have enough cash. A little embarrassing, but I’m only a couple blocks from home so it isn’t really that big a deal. I drop home and back to get some. But what the problem is, is that I should have had enough cash. I know I should have had two Rs 500 notes in there, one of which I just used at the wine shop. I was sure of that.

I knew then what I had done: I had given the wrong bill to the auto driver, who pocketed it without batting an eye, losing Rs 400 in the process. That is what I had done. I had had a tough day at work, was distracted by that, traffic had been heavy and I was antsy to get home. It is dark when I get out & I inadvertently handed him a Rs 500 note rather than a Rs 100, which is my standard fare. In my defence, it isn’t that impossible to do. Some of the Rs 500 notes are a bluish colour similar to the Rs 100 notes. In the dark, like it always is on the unlit street where I get off at home, it is possible to mix them up if you don’t look too closely (they are slightly different lengths too. Yes, I know). I usually hold the bill to a light to be sure, paranoid of this very mistake, but obviously I hadn’t today. I had whipped it out and handed it to him. It is about like giving a cab driver a $20 by mistake for a $5 fare. I actually thought I had done it a couple times before, which is why I usually check, but those other times, upon balancing my expenses, I found that no, I had just spent it; that slightly disheartening discovery we are all familiar with when we find we’ve dripped away cash a bit here or there on coffee or snacks or drinks or whatever. So this was bound to happen eventually. I still felt like an idiot and a rube though, especially after being here for so long. Oh well, I don’t blame the driver for not telling me. Call it a nice, if unintentional, tip for him and his family and a Rs 400 loss for me.

After running back to the store, I then got home properly, a bit disgruntled, groceries and toiletries in hand, and sat down with my housemate John for a drink of my rum. This is where I discovered my luck was indeed poor today. In telling the story about the auto and how I knew how I had lost the Rs 500 note, John stopped me, “how much did you pay for the rum?” … “Why?” I ask... Shit.

Back at the wine shop I had asked for Old Monk rum, “full size” (meaning 0.75L, they use the terms “full”, “half” here to denote a 26-er vs a mickey). The guy hands it to me and asks for Rs 521. It didn’t occur to me to question this. I knew it was premium liquor and I knew liquors have a ridiculous tax on them in Chennai. And the specific price of twenty-one rupees gave it an air of legitimacy. But apparently this wasn’t the price. It wasn’t close to the price. I can normally spot a scam, but this guy was quick.

It apparently should have been Rs 219, perhaps Rs 10 more. So I paid more than double. Whoops. What is even more remarkable was that John then tells me that all products sold in India are required to have the sale price marked on them. Sure enough the Rs 219 is printed right there on the side of the label. (BTW, Old Monk rum is one of the IMFL – Indian Made Foreign Liquors – available here, true foreign made imported is horrendously expensive, but usually higher quality).

Now they tell me.

Why didn’t someone point this out before? Why didn’t I notice before? Somehow it simply didn’t come up. Anything bought in bulk is either negotiated or only costs small change, but packaged products usually have set prices and I obviously came to trust those prices. For one, I realise that when I’ve bought the occasional odds and ends at the grocery store, the stuff goes through the register so the prices are regulated. For two, I long ago learned the prices of the basics from the shops, like pop, chocolate and snacks...although, you that I think about it, maybe I should check those chocolate bar wrappers next time I buy one...

It can also be tough because prices for things are skewed in different ratios than I am used to in North America. So a 0.75L of alcohol may be an incredibly cheap $5 to $6 (Rs 200-240) but the 2L of pop you are using for mix will still be $1.50 to $2 (Rs 60-80), the same as it is in Canada. And then the half chicken take-out you pick up might cost that same $1.50. So it can be hard to guess what one product should be based on other products. Hence being ripe for being taken.

Oh well. One ill-luck evening and I’m down Rs 700, which is rather a lot here. Chalk it up to being distracted and not paying attention. So I got fleeced. And all I had wanted was a quiet end to a tough day. Oh well, I could pretend my drink was some super-premium, special-stock liquor and be thankful I can still mostly use the exchange rate to soften the blow to my ego. No real harm done. I’ve lost more on stupid stuff. ;-)

So here is my lesson to anyone ready: in India all packaged goods are marked with the price printed directly on the packaging, even a bottle of alcohol, so it is easy to check that before forking over cash. It has to have it and the price will always be close to that so don’t let the shop person tell you otherwise.

See, now we’ve both learned something. ;-)

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