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The White Price

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Nov. 28th, 2012 | 04:22 am

Coming out of a new airport is a reset button on culture shock. Touts and beggars, informal porters, rickshaws, and the looming specter of being cheated.

You’re always going to pay more.

Sometimes officially, “5rs Indian/100rs Foreigner” at the museums and the sacred caves, and this is right. It’s the White Person Tax, the recognition that if you want world heritage to visit on your holiday, if you want great tracts of arable land to stay jungle in a starving nation or prime development parcels to remain archeological repositories in the heart of the city, someone must pay for it. Someone who can afford it.

You.

It’s the little ripoffs that rankle. The autorickshaw driver with the meter already running, or who tells me “Hundred rupees!” when I say, “station,” meaning, the station I paid 30 rupees to get here from. Sometimes it’s charming—a fruit seller so overcome with her own audacity that when I handed over 80 rupees for five oranges and five bananas without quibble, she pressed on me a bunch of grapes and a bag of some other fruit, pale-green globes like large cherries.

At Patna Airport Arrivals, I see the manager standing in his office door. He walks me through the options, prepaid taxi from this counter, autos and rickshaws over there, beyond the parking lot. I like autos, and they’re cheaper. And the skinny older man (he could be a youthful 65 or a hard-times 40) who offers 100rs to the bus station gets my custom.

I’ve been riding autorickshaws, large go-karts built around motorcycle engines. This one’s a cycle rickshaw. And when he pulls it out of the rickshaw queue and around to where I’m waiting, it’s the saddest one I’ve ever seen. The sunshade is tattered and probably permanently pushed back. The shiny plastic bench, covered in 50’s diner sparkle-vinyl, is cracked and torn. His bicycle seat has no padding.

I outweigh him.

My suitcase may outweigh him. But he squats, bear hugs it, and heaves it into the cart, then makes a small and courtly hand wave for me to climb in.

One hundred rupees is about US$2.50 and the bus station is a lot further than I thought (Later, I look it up, it’s about 8km).

This is a slower, quieter journey than the putting motors of the auto-rickshaws, more regal than a shared taxi. Heads turn as we pass—White chick! White chick!—and I feel as though I should be waving a gloved hand. We can’t take the highway, and he turns off the main road into a shaded back lane. One side is back walls of two-story concrete houses, square and squat. The other is lined with tents, simple tarps over center poles, staked to the ground like Girl Scout Camp. That is a house. That is a restaurant. No-one here is going home on Sunday night with a backpack of dirty hiking shorts and a new camp song. 

The traffic is somewhat deferential, recognizing the value of momentum. Taxis swerve rather than yielding, and my rider presses on. Speed bumps, drop-offs, places where the road becomes a dirt track; he carefully navigates his three-wheeler with a well-fed foreigner and her over-packed bags. When broken pavement makes him brake, get off, and push the bike before swinging back on, I am embarrassed with my own riches, then ashamed at looking down on this man’s job. We are both self-employed. Perhaps he, too, has thought, I’ll never work any less hard, so I might as well work for myself.

We sit in traffic—a jam here has pony carts and auto-rickshaws, miniature trucks and buses almost as large as Greyhound. Other cycle rickshaws tangle and extract themselves from truck bumpers. A back-up at the train tracks holds us long enough for me to hop down and change a 500-rupee note, buy some fruit for the bus ride.

The bus “station” is a dusty open area filled with coaches and touts and food carts. As I step down, three men are already there, pointing to their heads, where they will carry my suitcase.

“It has wheels,” I say, and smiling, show them I will take it myself. I tell my cycle-rider, “I know you said 100 rupees, but that was a long way and there was a lot of traffic.” I pay him double, I give him a tiny string of glass peppers, brought from America because they look like the real pepper-and-lime strings that hang from rearview mirrors here. I found them in Las Vegas and bought twenty strings.

They make great gifts.

We Namaste each other. I hope he can get a fare back to the airport. I don’t know if the original hundred was the right price or the white price, but either way, it’s not enough.

__________________________________________
Back in Patna, I keep looking to see if I spot the same rider.



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Comments {9}

Ellakite

Fascinating.

from: ellakite
date: Nov. 28th, 2012 01:38 pm (UTC)
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I've never been one to haggle, and being both generous and politically liberal in nature I've generally never had a problem paying a bit more than the "less fortunate". I have to admit that I found the price markups you list in this piece to be rather shocking... until I remembered what the average salary is in that part of the world. We here in the West frequently earn 20 times more than the folks over there, so we should be able to afford to pay 20 times as much as the locals.

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whipchick

Re: Fascinating.

from: whipchick
date: Nov. 29th, 2012 05:21 am (UTC)
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Agreed! And it's all in perspective, too. On one hand, I'll end up paying double or triple what the locals pay...on the other hand, it's still a 30 minute cab ride for two dollars :) (The rupee just dropped again, too, so at 50rs=US$1, museums and sights are still around two bucks most of the time.)

Edited at 2012-11-29 05:23 am (UTC)

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The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors

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from: halfshellvenus
date: Nov. 28th, 2012 10:06 pm (UTC)
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Wonderfully vivid description, as always, and I found myself teetering at the end over whether you would pay the cycle-driver more, because he certainly earned and deserved it! Wow.

The light strings are a great idea-- rare where you are, remniscent of something loved over there, and a generous surprise because you won't give them to everyone. :)

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Nov. 29th, 2012 05:21 am (UTC)
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Thanks :) Yeah, I've found I really like having small presents to give! And I carry origami paper with me, too, as folding cranes and giving them to kids is a great ice-breaker on the train.

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Andrea Blythe

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from: blythe025
date: Nov. 30th, 2012 06:10 pm (UTC)
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Great post.

I was in Mexico a while back with a group of students once and many had the impression that we should haggle prices, but as I found myself arguing over fifty cents, it just felt wrong. I didn't understand the concept of white privilege at the time, but I knew I could afford the fifty cents, so why bother about it. So, I stopped haggling and just paid what I was asked.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Dec. 5th, 2012 05:36 pm (UTC)
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Agreed! I try not to pay double or triple, but I'm almost always fine with overpaying. What I do like is when bargaining becomes a social occasion - sit with tea, look at things, learn about them, interact with the shop staff, and it's more about both sides walking away satisfied than trying to beat the best price out of each other.

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Andrea Blythe

(no subject)

from: blythe025
date: Dec. 6th, 2012 05:45 pm (UTC)
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Yes! When it's a social occasion, it's wonderful. :)

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blahblahblah, whatever

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from: kathrynrose
date: Nov. 30th, 2012 08:30 pm (UTC)
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I love this so much.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Dec. 5th, 2012 05:36 pm (UTC)
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:) I love that you read!

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