Am I Really Your Friend, Raj? – Scams and “Foreign Pricing” in India

20 05 2009

As a tourist traveling through India, you are often a common target for scams. They come in all shapes and sizes and can be as simple as an inflated price at a street stall to a rickshaw driver intentionally taking you to the wrong hotel or a guesthouse, so he could receive a commission from the owner and so on. Fortunately, after a while, you get pretty good at recognizing and avoiding most of them.

Still, even so, every once in a while, you can let the guard down because you feel like you’re having a genuine “interaction” with a local and then you discover that more often than not, there lurks some sort of an ulterior motive. It’s truly frustrating because it makes it very difficult to trust the locals around you and feels that the only people that you can rely on are your traveling partners or other tourists, who are in the same boat as you.

Moreover, to avoid scams and other pushy behavior, you wind up acting in ways you may really dislike – having to be aggressive and sometimes even rude. Because you know what will come next after every “hello, my friend” and “what county you from” – especially when you hear it 50 times over the course of a day.

The truth is, I can’t really blame the locals for trying. Although I don’t think that scams and overpricing is necessarily fair, at the end of the day, people committing them are not doing it to get rich. They are surviving – at whatever costs involves.

If I was a rickshaw driver, I would also try to milk my foreign customers for as much as I could – because an extra $1 to me means a whole lot more than a $1 to them. And I would have a very hard time understanding why is it that the people that can probably most afford that price are also the ones that are arguing the longest to shave off a few pennies.

As a tourist, I’m not sure what the proper way to deal with this is. Many travelers are on a budget and are not necessarily made of money either, so haggling helps to keep costs down. So are we necessarily wrong for trying to get a fair deal and the same price as everybody else?

Or are we focusing too much on the matter of principle when we’re trying to get a rickshaw driver to lower their price by $0.05 USD, and forgetting the human element to this interaction?

This gentlemen is 74 years old and has been riding his rickshaw (the one in the picture) for almost 5 decades. He's one of thousands of others trying to make a living.

This gentlemen is 74 years old and has been riding his rickshaw (the one in the picture) for almost 5 decades. He's one of thousands of others trying to make a living.

Would love to hear your thoughts if you’ve travelled abroad – in the developing or developed countries – and had to deal with these things.

P.S. Ironically enough, the day after I wrote and prepared this post, we actually met a couple of kids that spent several hours showing us their town – without any side motive. So, you never know…


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7 responses

20 05 2009
Andrey

Well, first of all, I think you have the entire post published twice (unless of course I’m going insane, which is certainly a possibility). Second, this seems to be a common practice not limited to the developing world. This happens everywhere, from Rome to NYC. Try getting a cab at JFK. It’ll cost you 3 times as much as calling up a car service in Brooklyn to come pick you up. In Rome, I ended up paying 60 euros for a cab from the airport to the hotel because I wasn’t sure how to get there (could’ve taken a train).

In this case, I feel you are overthinking it. Humans are by no means an honest bunch and it has little to do with poverty. You’re perceptional of it changes because these people are poor but I don’t think there is any excuse for being dishonest. It’s always this “grass is greener” mentality. Rickshaw drivers justify it to themselves by the fact that these rich Westerners can afford it. New York car service driver parked outside an airport terminal justifies it by the fact that these rich Asians and Europeans can afford it as well. At the same time vendors in Paris are convinced that the luggage you are carrying is full of dollars.

Poverty in itself is a meaningless term. It is always in comparison to someone else that one is poor. And I can tell you one thing, judging from the recent political TV commercials around here, Americans are convinced that they are poor now because Chinese are rich. Go figure.

20 05 2009
Anuta

I once paid $20 for a cocunut in jamaica =)
But the way that I usually try to avoid scams is by not mentioning that I am American. People around the world have the perception that all americans are rich and stupid and thus can be easily taken avdantage of. So I usually say that I am from Russia. It is just safer that way. They would probably still try to scam you but not nearly as much.

20 05 2009
Gosha

Bora, if you say you’re Russian, I bet you can get a discount on Vodka…🙂

20 05 2009
nedberke

I just found this post by searching for something else, and I had to comment. I’ve been living in Lima, Peru, for the last 9 months. You’ve articulated my conflicted sentiments on this very well: On the one hand, they need the money and it means more to them. On the other hand, there’s the principle, and also the fact that it inflates prices for all tourists.

What I’ve found is that the element of distrust can, after a while, make you miserable. I’ve seen many expats and tourists here who let themselves be baited by it that they get so fed up and either leave the country, or continually carry bitterness and prejudice towards the locals.

My solution? Argue when it’s convenient, or the prices are outrageous – and look at it as a game. I fully enjoy bartering with taxis now, and I chuckle when cart-owners throw on an extra 20 cents for cold water, as opposed to room temperature water (mind you, this is modern Lima, not a small Andean pueblo where electricity can come at a price). Sometimes I like to face down getting ripped off ’cause it gives me a chance to surprise them with Spanish slang.

In the end, the best option to me is to not get worked up about it and argue when it’s convenient.

20 05 2009
Frances

And throw in your special toast and they’ll give the vodka to you for free just to get rid of you🙂

It is a dilemma, as many things are in life. Speaking as an historian, what we perceive as cheating and lying in many countries has become culturally acceptable and is part of what makes their economic system function. For example, take the giving of what we consider bribes to government officials to make a parking ticket go away or get us through customs quicker. In the West, both parties are up for criminal action, but in some countries, this is expected behavior and is the way they pay their public officials — well, you pay them, but you get my drift. Without bribes, the infrastructure would collapse and there would be no one willing to be a police officer at the actual salary they are paid. But, as in the West, few go beyond what to them is culturally acceptable — bribes for parking tickets is OK but bribes to allow a ton of cocaine in the plane is not — some obviously do, but most don’t, just as in the West. If you do that kind of thing for centuries, it becomes part of the culture and the way the world works and ceases to have a negative connotation.

And Westerners are far from exempt for flattering behavior to get more out of someone — that’s the basis of customer relations itself!

So I have solved another of the mysteries of the world for you Boris … hehehe … Andrey will undoubtedly have something to say about my analysis, especially as he is just going off on his own European adventure next week.

21 05 2009
Анатолий

20$ coconut was sold to us by a Haitian gentleman in the Dominican Republic. And since Haiti is neither developed nor developing, that particular incident is not really applicable to this discussion.

22 05 2009
Anuta

haha whatever helps you sleep at night =)

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