We wanted to get a ride to Zara’s in an auto-rickshaw, which are the little three-wheeled vehicles that are used as taxis. This is what they look like:
The thing about the rickshaw drivers is that they will almost certainly try to rip you off if you’re white, because they figure you probably don’t know any better. But since we’ve been here for a few weeks, and since we go to the same or similar places repeatedly, we have a good sense of how much we feel that we should pay (it’s probably still more than a local would pay, but hey, we can afford it, so I really don’t mind). So you have to haggle with the drivers to get a reasonable price. Our tactic is to decide how much we’re willing to pay beforehand, and then start about 20 rupees under that and talk them down as they talk us up. The most effective way to get a good price is to start walking away, and even if they call your bluff and let you leave it’s not hard to find another rickshaw.
A rickshaw has a front seat for the driver and then a bench behind that will more or less fit three people. M, E, and I sort of have to squeeze together to all fit (mostly because my hips are huge), but it’s not really uncomfortable, other than the fact that we’re sweating on each other. So for the five of us, we decided M would sit on my lap and cool Brit boy would sit on cool Brit girl’s lap, and we’d just sort of cram ourselves in for the ride. A couple rickshaw drivers wouldn’t even let all five of us into one rickshaw (which is funny because I’ve seen rickshaws with literally nine or ten Indians packed into them), but there was one driver who agreed to take us in one rickshaw but wanted to charge us Rs. 100. The driver is one of the regulars on our street and has taken us places before, so we know him a little bit. E talked him down to 80, but we wanted to pay only 70, so E politely persisted in saying that we would only pay 70. I was looking the other way and didn’t see this, but according to E, the guy raised his eyebrows and stared at him rather derisively and condescendingly and said, "You make joke?" as though E was stupid and ridiculous for suggesting such a low price (when in fact Rs. 70 is quite reasonable).
Let me pause for a moment to say something about E, since most of you don’t really know him. He is incredibly kind and infinitely patient. You all know how annoying I am, and he’s been spending practically every day with me for nearly a solid nine months, and he puts up with me serenely and with good humor. He doesn’t raise his voice (well, not in anger–he raises his voice all the time to sing annoying songs that then get stuck in my head) and he doesn’t lose his temper. Not usually, anyway. The cultural adjustment has been trying for him, as it has been for me, because people are always getting in your face trying to sell you something, trying to rip you off, etc. As E puts it, "I feel like I have to be an asshole and I don’t like doing that."
So anyway, the rickshaw driver was being a jerk and insulting E, but I didn’t really notice. What I did notice is that E suddenly said, a little loudly and very sharply, something to the effect of "Fuck you. I don’t want a ride from you anyway. Just get away from me." I was totally scandalized. He says he just sort of snapped, and that it almost never happens to him in the U.S., but it’s happened a few times in India. I think I know what he means. I’ve also found myself feeling more hostile toward people that I expect to try to take advantage of me. I had an experience with a rickshaw driver where he wanted me to pay extra because he took me to the wrong place, and I said I’d give him 20 rupees more and that was it. I needed to give him 70 total and all I had was a 100 rupee bill. The driver claimed to have only 13 rupees of change, so I got out of the rickshaw to go up to a little store to get some change. So soon the rickshaw driver is following me and has magically produced 30 rupees to give me in change. Without even really thinking about it, I gave him the 100, snatched the 30 away from him, and said, "You lied to me about not having change, and you lied to me about how much the toll was (there’s a toll road between Mamalapuram and Chennai and they tell you the toll is Rs. 50 but it’s really 45, and they try to keep your Rs. 5 of change), and you think I’m just a stupid American tourist and that I don’t know any better, but I do, and I really don’t appreciate your behavior." And then I stalked off as he was no doubt cursing at me in Tamil. I’m not even sure why I was so angry; I guess things just start to build up. Already that morning the guy at the guesthouse tried to charge me for 6 nights instead of 5, and the guy with whom I negotiated to get the rickshaw ride from Mamalapuram to Chennai told me that it would be more expensive to go to Saidapet (the neighborhood in Chennai where the OI office is) when I know damn well that Saidapet is farther south and therefore closer to Mamalapuram than a lot of other places in Chennai.
The hostility and aggressiveness is a weird side of me, and from what I can tell, a weird side of E too. It’s good because it makes me feel confident and assertive when I’m able to say, "No, Saidapet is in the south. It should be cheaper, not more expensive." But on the other hand, I have to remind myself that for as many Indians who are trying to cheat me and getting in my face, there are so many who have been incredibly kind and helpful (one example: the guy I buy water and TP from in Mamalapuram directed me to another store where I could put more money on my phone. I was going to buy water from the first guy, but all I had was a 500 rupee note, so I said, "I’ll buy the water on my way back" and he said, "No, it’s okay, you take the water now, pay me on the way back."). And of course I can always think back to the women at yesterday’s group meeting, or all the helpful people at OI, and then I feel downright warm and fuzzy about this country again.
As with my last Indian inconvenience, there is a happy epilogue to the story, which is that we found a driver who would take all five of us in one rickshaw for Rs. 70. He turned out to be a nice, funny guy, and we got him to take this picture of us all crammed into the rickshaw:
And in addition to the 70 rupees, we also gave him a one dollar bill, because he found out that three of us were from America and many Indians really like getting foreign money, especially dollars. So in theory we spent 115 rupees on the ride, but when people are kind and honest, you want to give them more, you know? And E’s little outburst was pretty hilarious to the rest of us, especially since he’s normally so calm and agreeable.
On an entirely unrelated note, isn’t this a great picture of E and I?