Wednesday, February 16, 2005

A Fool and His Money

This is business travel after all, so most of my time in India is spent wholed up in an interior conference room. I have three days of meetings, but Thursday is a day off due to elections in the state of Haryana, where the town of Gurgaon is located. Delhi is in a different state just north of Haryana. The bad news is that Haryana lies on the route between Delhi, where I am staying, and Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located. Due to the elections, the border to the state will be shut, and what would normally be a three hour drive would instead be a five hour drive. Even on the night prior to the election, when I go to dinner with Manish, we can't get served any alcohol. Indians suffer from the perception that sobriety makes for less corrupt elections, but I am of the opposite opinion - a man good and drunk isn't likely to be pulling any fast ones on the election process. I have a water instead of a Kingfisher Premium, and I'm fully sober enough to vote in every district in the city.

The World's Greatest Golfer is very bearish on the Taj Mahal, recommending instead that we go shopping and see some of the sights of Delhi. Who am I to argue - I'm lucky if I can break 100? As he drops me back at the hotel, we decide that he'll pick me up at 10 am. Instead of heading straight for the room, I take a detour into the lounge, where an Indian band is playing Bob Marley's Wait in Vane. Not bad, I must say, though despite myself I can't help thinking of the Mellencamp line about a "Cuban Band is crucifying John Lennon," even though it doesn't apply here. (And besides, unless you were a Baby Boomer stoned through the entire sixties and you therefore considered Lennon a combination poet/prophet, you'd find most of his lyrics can't help but be crucified; obviously Mellencamp was stoned through the Sixties.)

I then make the mistake of going to the second floor of the hotel, where there are several shops. Next thing I know a salesguy is attached to me, wanting to show me everything across several different stores, all of which are commonly owned. He offers me a Pepsi (much bigger than Coke in India), assuring me that there is no obligation to buy. I eventually beg off after saying that I'm not sure what my wife wants - jewelry or a shawl - and tell him I'll be back tomorrow. He wants to know what time. I lie and tell him I'll be working all day, and that I'll be in at around 8 pm. Before I depart, he warns me of the Government Shops, the first scheduled stop on my tour of Delhi in the morning, and tells me that my driver will get a commission for taking me there. But I know this is a lie because why would the money leader on the PGA tour be interested in some measly commission.

The hotel is the Intercontinental, a four star hotel. But you have to understand that in India the ranking system is based on 100 stars. When my colleague and I arrived Monday morning at 1 am, they didn't have any rooms ready for us, and asked us to wait for five minutes and they'd be ready. Apparently check-in times for Indian hotels are closer to 4 am than 4 pm. A half an hour later and after a few trips to the counter, the deskgirl offers one room for the two of us. Not acceptable. Finally, they relent and put us both up in separate suites, which were really nice rooms. But we were going to have to move the next day.

More shenanigans occur the next day in trying to recover our luggage to our new rooms from the front desk. After a second call to the concierge, who assured me the first time that my bags would be sent right up (the second person to assure me that), I am asked to come down to identify it. Apparently they just figured they'd wait it out and see if I noticed that no one had brought it up rather than tell me they couldn't find it. I go down, find it immediately, and a bell boy attaches himself to the bag, insists upon escorting me to the room, and stays there with a hang dog expression waiting for a tip. I give him 10 rupees, about $0.25 - big spender, I know, but that is standard in a hotel that ranks 4 out of 100 stars.

First stop on my tour of Delhi - the Government shops. I'm whisked to the handwoven silk rug section, where again I am offered a Pepsi. I decline, and the salesperson assures me that drinking a Pepsi will not obligate me to buy a $4 thousand dollar rug. I accept. See, it's different here - in the U.S. of course you are obligated to purchase thousands of dollars of goods when you accept a cup of coffee from a merchant - it's an implicit contract enforceable in the courts. But in India, they are only offering you the Pepsi out of courtesy.

The salesguy gives me a demonstration of how the rugs are made, bringing out a loom and the various tools; there is a piece of paper with some sort of shorthand scribbled across it which tells the weaver the pattern. It is a remarkably simple sheet of instructions given the detail and intricacy of the rugs. I pick the smallest size rug they have, and talk the guy down from $1200 to $800. Sold!, and Vijay smiles, the little commission loving bastage! In retrospect I realize that over the course of the day, Vijay will negotiate everything for me, expect for the things I buy in the Government Shops. But I like him, so what do I care if he earns a few bucks off of the deal.

Thinking I have now filled my end of the Pepsi bargain, I am ready to hit the road, but no, there is yet another room downstairs where I should buy something for my wife. So there I go, handed off to another salesguy, with the rug guy no doubt giving some sort of signal that I am a very live fish - just offer me a Pepsi. The new salesguy offers me a Pepsi - not so fast, guy, I fell for that one upstairs and now I'm $800 lighter. I tell him I'm interested in a Pasmina shawl for my wife. Pasmina is a wool made from the chin of the mountain goat, the finest wool in all the world. In the hotel shops, a shawl that was 80 percent pasmina and 20 percent rayon sold for about $60. But 100 percent pasmina goes for a lot more, and he starts right in trying to sell me one. (Not that it was as expensive as the rug, it just seemed really expensive for what it was). I'm thinking this sale will take at least two cold Pepsis.

But then he does the presentation, where he passes the entire shawl through my wedding ring. As a demonstration I am not sure what this proves, but I'm pretty shore it proves something, and now he has me on the hook. I go right down to 67 percent of the asking price, the endpoint of my rug bargain. He can only do 10 percent off. I tell him that the rug guy came down that far, so what is the issue? He gives me some plausible reason. I tell him I can't go any higher. He then proceeds to tell me that in other markets, they will say 5 percent off, and will go down to 50 percent off, but that he has offered me the best deal he can give me right off the bat - 10 percent off is as low as he can go, and he wants to treat me fairly. But then he says he'll go talk to the manager to see what he can do. Apparently I am not supposed to notice that if his manager goes beneath 10 percent everything he has just told me is a lie. I end up getting 25 percent off.

My only comfort is that I see a rich Indian family shopping there as I leave, making me think that this store is not just for stupid Americans and Europeans. But then again the Indians probably get the same treatment Eddie Murphy got in the SNL skit where he disguised himself as a white guy.

Throughout the rest of the day Vijay saves me at least $0.25 on everything else I buy. Savings on all manner of cheap trinkets - little plastic helicopters that you shoot in the air with a rubber band sling shot - 20 rupees - you have to be kidding me? Vijay walks away angry, insulted, looking like he wouldn't even let me take the toys for free from this vendor, takes a few steps in a perfectly scripted scene, the guy has barely opened his mouth to lower the price to 10 rupees, and Vijay turns on a dime, takes 30 rupees from my roll, and now I've got three cheap helicopter thingies for my kids. Total savings - about $0.75.

I take the picture above close to where we park to see India Gate, a momument to those who fought and died for the British cause in WWII, and the snake charmer is running after me for compensation. Again, Vijay intervenes - 50 rupees for a picture of a snake charmer and a dancing monkey - do you think we were born yesterday? - you'll get 10 rupees and like it! You want 500 rupees for a cheap knock-off disposable camera that will ruin every picture you take with it - preposterous - 350 rupees is our final offer!

Thanks, Vijay, where were you when I needed ya?


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