A friend and her brother flew from Brooklyn to Mumbai to attend a wedding, and while I was uncontrollably jealous (India's been on my travel-to list since F-O-R-E-V-E-R!), I was also thankful, for their trip inspired a hilarious write-up illustrating the kind of attitude you have to be prepared to adopt.

They have generously allowed me to share it here (woo-hoo!), so here it is!


Vendor Smackdown: Brooklyn Style!

I had a great time while in India (for the most part) having been there for three weeks while visiting seven or so different cities. But the one thing I could have definitely done without was the "bargaining" that goes on with each transaction. You can't get around it but you can be prepared (while maybe having a little fun). Now if you have a local guide or are a local and speak the language, then most of this need not apply. For the rest of us, please read on.

So the next time you are in India and the vendors just won't take no for an answer, try one of these methods.

"40 Nays, 40 Naughts"
For some vendors, it seems that hearing the term "No" gives them a license to badger. You think it doesn't matter how many times you say it, they will just come back stronger than the tap water you drank from the side of the road. But I decided to put it to the test. One vendor approached me and I saw that look in his eye, thinking to himself that he's gonna eat well tonight after he reels in this guppy. He started with trying to sell me some item (I think it was postcards) and I politely said no. But he insisted that I needed it and so persisted in trying to sell me his wares. Again, I said no thanks but to no avail. At that point I just continued saying "No" until he stopped.

It went something a little like this:

Vendor: You really need some [postcards]…very cheap
Me: No No No No No No No
Vendor: 120 Rupees for a pack of 12
Me: No No No No No No No No (they should be 5 rupees per postcard, btw)
Vendor: Here, just hold these in your hand
Me: No No No No No No No
Vendor: OK OK Uncle
The vendor slinks away.

"Create a Market"
So...you have to take that auto-rickshaw across town to get to the next monument, fort or tomb. No problem. "Driver, will you turn on your meter?" "No, it's broken" "Of course it is…how much to go the 2.5 km to Connaught Place?" After a momentary glance "150 rupees!!!" Before you open your money belt and make this guys' week, try asking the next driver. And then the next and then the next (rickshaw drivers tend to congregate at taxi-stands). 

When you ask the next guy, one of three things will happen: 1) They will say 150 INR; 2) They will say 200 INR; 3) They will say 100 INR. If they say the first, then ask the next driver until you get a different quote. If they go higher, mention that the driver you just asked said 150 and that you might as well go back. What can they offer. If they go lower, go back to the first driver and mention you got a quote of 100, what can you do for me? This worked for me a couple times whilst in the cities. 

But the drawbacks are that it takes time to build this market (and time is so precious) and most people know each other and they set rates ahead of time. They are on their game and they have PhDs in the science of shim-shamming. Since you can't hate the player, you have to attack the game and flip it in your favor. A taxi-stand full of rickshaw drivers that's divided cannot stand!

"The Low-Ball Insult"
So it turns out that when you get a driver (taxi, tour guide, auto-rickshaw), some get kick-backs for the number of tourists they can bring to shops selling souvenirs. Be wary if you happen to get a flat tire outside of the Sari Emporium and the driver just happens to know all the staff inside. Usually it's harmless as they try a light to medium sell and don't apply that much pressure to buy. But if you are on a mission to see as many temples and tombs in a day, then it can be time consuming. And so you have twenty minutes to get to Hamayun's Tomb and the vendors are swarming and you need to get the heck out of there…No problem. Just quote a price so low they will just throw you out of the store. 

I remember we were in Fort Cochin and, to my surprise, between the Chinese Fishnet boats and Mantancherry Palace, we just had to stop at this shop that was 'to die for'. The fiendishly clever thing about this store was that it had an amazing view from the rooftop (five flights up) which looked out on all of Cochin (very nice). But when it was time to leave, you had to walk down the five flights which were full of vendors that couldn't wait for you to descend the steps. I felt like Bruce Lee in the "Game of Death" trying to get out of that place. I came to this floor where the guy was selling rugs (not bad) but I wasn't going to lug that stuff around while backpacking. He said something like they were pure silk, the rugs last for generations, they change colors and on and on and on. OK OK , I get it…I can fly outta here on these magic rugs. So how much? He said "for you, my friend, $175" Here we go again. I looked him square in the eye and said to him, "If I wanted to pay that amount or even less, I would just go to Chinatown in NY. The reason why a bought a ticket to India is so that I wouldn't have to pay NY prices. I am fully aware of what wage earners make here and the cost to produce a rug like this in India is nowhere near the amount you are quoting. I will offer you $25…take it or leave it". Needless to say the vendor didn't appreciate my lessons in world purchasing power and asked me to vacate the premises. But that worked for me…either I would get an insane deal or they would be instantly disinterested, saving me time and sanity.

"Locals Know Best"
So, you're in a crowded area and vendors are swarming you like killer bees. Now you may be interested in buying some of their items like the inflatable rubber thingy or some sandalwood statue. But you really don't know how much it should cost. And if you are not from around those parts, you better believe the price will be jacked up beyond belief. So how do you figure out how many rupees to drop…no problem. Just ask the local right next to you. Let's say you approach a vendor and see a candle holder that catches your eye. But to your amazement, there is no price tag on the item. And so you ask "How much?" and you swear you see $ signs in their eyes and registers ringing in the background as they quote some inflated price. Instead of trying to haggle, turn to the person off to the side who's a local bystander and ask "Would you pay X for this candle-holder?" If they recoil in shock then you know it's way too much. Then ask the local how much would they actually pay. Eventually you should be able to zero in on a reasonable price.

"Show me the Money"
"It doesn't cost anything to look". I heard this from vendors in every state that I went to. What they don't realize is that it takes up so much of your time, time that could have been spent looking for a better hotel to stay at. And so it should not be unreasonable to think that if they are going to waste my time, then I should some how be compensated for it. A couple times I have actually asked vendors that wanted to bring me to a "special" store to pay me first. I usually have to repeat it because they'll have a look of disbelief. If they want me to take another step in their direction, they should pay me and then I'll go. Something nominal like 10 or 20 rupees usually does the trick and they leave you alone. But one vendor did call my bluff. I was outside the Gateway of India taking pics and one vendor actually gave me 20 INR. I didn't know what to do and was thrown off my game for a split-second. I promptly gave the money back to him and smiled. I don't think either one of us came out ahead and so that was a definite draw. Warning: Make sure to have a follow-up if and when you actually get paid.

"Don't Blink"
I don't know if it were the fact that I was worn down mentally or if my body was lacking nutrients from all the veg-only meals, but at some point when confronted by vendors I would just stare and not say a word. They would talk and talk and talk about their items, their families, how it doesn't cost anything to look, how buying their stuff is a pittance for us, how Obama should win. You name it. But I would keep mum and stare. Eventually they would run out of steam and move on. Passive but effective especially when trying to save energy for climbing the million steps to get to the top of Elephanta Caves.

"Drop Price with Every Counteroffer"
I tried to get funky a couple of times while managing my vendor relations. This method helps with buying something you really want but don't want to spend the time to beg the price down. If, let's say, the vendor quotes a price of 1500 rupees for that Kashmir scarf (pure silk, mind you) and you think it's worth 750 rupees then start off with that. The vendor will jump back in horror as if you just put a lance through their abdomen. But they recover quick and say 1450 rupees (Pure silk, pure silk! Just feel it!) Now you can see where this is going and the amount of time this will take. You should then say "725 rupees". "What?", they shout. "How about 1300 rupees? Final offer. Just take it from my sight!" Then you say "650 rupees!!" Check and mate! Now if the guy is quick on the uptake, he will realize you aren't messing around and will either settle for your 750 or just throw you out.

"Go See the Man"
So you get to the point of the trip where you need to get those souvenirs for family and friends back home and you're dreading the marathon that will be haggling with vendors. So what to do if you don't feel like taking out a home equity loan to pay for some overpriced stuff…no problem. Go see "The Man". Any government-run store should have the prices clearly displayed and typically there's no bargaining to be had. The price might be a tad higher than what it should cost (like buying a soda at the airport) but at least you know the cost is in the same hemisphere. Also, when vendors take you to those "special shops", ask them if it is government or state run. That usually stops them in their tracks. That way you avoid 500 rupee camel rides (for each person; so 1,000 rupees total!) for what should only cost a total of 50 rupees. Unfortunately that's a true story. Vendors definitely won that round.

"Lost in Translation"
When traveling to a foreign land, a good guide book is one of the essentials. Naturally I didn't bring one but luckily my sister did. We had a copy of Lonely Planet: South India and we had it on us at all times. There will be times when vendors will speak perfect English but when you tell them to "hit the road", they will have a puzzled look on their face. No problem. Just point to the good book…towards the back of mine, they translated a number of commonly used expressions into Hindi and other dialects. Just point and ask them to read the lines that say "No thank you", "I have no money" or "You're too close, man!" I tried this in Goa and I started by reading the sentence "Leave me alone" and he said that wasn't his native tongue. Too bad for him LP had several dialects and I had him find his language and read the exact same line. He grinned and then promptly left. Message received.

My last piece of advice that I would give is to remain sympathetic. You must be mindful of the fact that this is a societal norm and that due to the disparity in global wages, paying these "outlandish" prices won't bankrupt you.

I, on the other hand, have studies economics and I will not be moved by such an argument. I will forever be laying the SMACKDOWN!!! (wa-pish)

Hope you had fun reading. You're a trooper if you made it this far. Pass on if you feel it will help some unsuspecting mark.

The beautiful -- but tragically bombed by terrorists in Nov 2008 -- Taj Mahal Palace image courtesy of robbie1226.

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