Okay, it’s confession time! We discovered that someone must have mehndied the word “Cheatable” on our foreheads, at least according to Mani, our driver.
As newcomers, Sarah and I have done our best to fit in and to show our enthusiasm and openness for everything we eat and everyone we meet, including not only fellow professionals, but all the shopkeepers, the coconut sellers, iron box men, trinket vendors, knife grinders, parents and kids on the way to school, and all those early risers I meet on my morning walkabouts.
We were told in our first “cultural awareness” coaching session at AISC, that typically expats need not worry about many of the dangers we might in, say, some parts of Chicago or NYC or DC or any typical good-sized city in the US. Physical violence like mugging or robbery is far less prevalent here (as are guns–the police here don’t even carry them) especially among expats, so we generally feel quite comfortable walking and shopping and dining in our Besant Nagar neighborhood and most areas of the city. We were warned, though, that the culture does seem a bit more relaxed when it comes to, let’s say, taking advantage of one’s unfamiliarity with pricing and value and, okay, our newcomers’ gullibility. We had specific training from the school on this topic and how to handle it, plus Mani, our driver, takes great pains to educate us daily on the Tamil language (“You speak so slowly every syllable, like a song. Just put them all together,”) history, naming (generally, no last names in the sense we use them in the US), mores, and, yes, even on successful bargaining.
Alas, we let Mani down and struck out, with our second and third epic fails over the Gandhi Jayanti festival weekend celebrating the Father of India’s birthday on our first road trip 45km down the coast to the Mahabs (Mahabalipuram).
But our first fail was a few weeks ago, when our doorbell rang late on a Sunday afternoon. I looked out the peephole and there stood a smiling fellow I’d never seen before, so I opened the door. (Can you guess what cultural awareness rule #1 in this situation might be?) The fellow said he was our new neighbor and stuck out his hand. Of course, I shook it as he continued telling me how he had been trying to meet us for a few days but I always had just gone out for a walk or off to school. (Okay, he knew about “school,” plus, a huge never-before-seen Volvo Countryman had shown up in the four bay parking area on the ground floor precisely three days earlier and the driver regularly stood and gave me a friendly “vanakkam, sir” as I walked past.) “May I come in?” Our new neighbor stepped forward and I graciously welcomed him into our flat. (Can you guess rule #2?) He then explained he was helping his temple—which temple, the one over there, where, over there, oh sure that one—collect money to feed the poor children and there was to be a “special picnic party” at our building next Sunday to celebrate, and then to seal the deal he showed me a receipt book where several folks had donated Rs3,000 which is about 50USD. (Can you guess rule #3 and how we ignored it? No, we did not give him that much!) The next day, Sarah ran into another new faculty member at school who told her she thought she might have been scammed . . . yep, the exact same story–and the same had happened to a couple other teachers. Hook.
So, unaware of the approaching storm clouds (the header photo is from our roof terrace one evening,) we head down to the Mahabs on a stunning Saturday morning, pull into the queue of cars entering the historic area . . . and a guy flags us over to the side of the street. Did we do something wrong, do we have our passports and visas and residency permits? He hands Mani the laminated card of an “Official Guide” and they negotiate a price (Rs600) and the Official Guide hops into the back seat with me. “Maha means great, bali means sacrifices, and puram means place.” Okay, then. We jog through the Shore Temple area and hop back into the car. My camera begs me to slow down.
Off we head back into the village and I catch glimpses of Arjuna’s Penance and Krishna’s Butterball just a block away through the narrow lanes. Oh boy, can’t wait! We wind around through the knotted traffic and wow, there it is, right across the street, far more imposing in person (30m long and 15m high) than in the photos.
Our guide tells Mani to pull over to let us out . . . and he ushers us into a dark alcove where a man sits, engrossed in scribing tiny lines on a pomegranate sized lump of granite—at least that’s what he says it is. We are told this is the shop where the students are learning the art and craft of hand carving lovely Ganeshas and Buddhas and even Kama Sutra candle holders (yep!) and where the prices are much cheaper than the street vendors. (Did he wink?) We idly select five pieces we kind of like and I notice there is no price tag on anything. (Can you guess rule #4?) “I’ll look it up in the book,” the artist tells us. I keep gazing across the street at Arjuna’s Penance as the carver takes out a pad and pencil, then picks up each item, seems to evaluate its heft, and writes down a number.
Five items, total Rs12,000 (about 180USD!!!!) “Way too much,” our intrepid guide steps in to save us. Rs10,000 the artist writes. We stand silently as the guide and the artist debate (or more likely make fun of us) rapidly in Tami, taking turns scratching out the other’s price and writing another . . . and we end up at 8,000Rs. Deal. I don’t have that much excess cash but the artist wraps everything in a week’s worth of newspapers and a half kilometer of tape so we can later find an ATM and hand over the money to our guide . . . and finally we are allowed to, you guessed it, jog past Arjuna’s Penance so we can hop in the car to find the Five Rathas. Mani shakes his head. Line.
Sinker time comes when our guide decides we’ve seen enough and we’re getting hungry. No, we didn’t even come close to Krishna’s Butterball. “My restaurant is the best in town, you will love it.” His restaurant? He directs Mani to thread us down an even narrower slot between buildings and we see The Seahorse Restaurant right down by the beach. I check it out and it’s five stars!! Two reviews. Right. In we go, up the filthy stairs, past the crowd of zero, onto the rooftop terrace with a crumbling thatched roof where we sit at a plastic table that looks like goat vivisection is regularly performed on it. He shoves that table aside and grabs another that is so sticky it might have been rinsed off back in the twentieth century but he at least tosses a beach towel over it.
Next, he brings up a couple plates with fresh prawns on one and three red snapper on the other. “These were swimming at 4am. I’ll cook them for you with my mother’s very own masala.” Done. (Can you guess rule #5?) Actually, the prawns and snapper were utterly delicious as was the plate of masala potatoes and vegetables. Progress. As we eat, Mani arrives and convinces us that even Rs8,000 is way too much for the carved items in our car, so we adopt a strategy of telling the guide/chef/art-broker that, sorry, since we just got there, sorry, and haven’t looked, sorry, at other shops, sorry, we want to do that and, sorry, not complete the transaction, sorry, for these works of art, sorry, all wrapped up in our car. Sorry. (Did anyone actually watch the artist wrap the things or were we just yearning for Arjuna’s Penance? Rule #6, perhaps?) When the maestro of all returns to our table, I deliver our well rehearsed line and he says, no hesitation at all, “Sure no problem or you could just pay less.” Dang, here we go again. This time, Mani engages and we end up with a price that seems a bit more reasonable. No, I’m not telling! (Rule #7.) We hand over the money and ask for our check (it’s referred to as the “bill” here) and again, a pad is produced and figures written down following great contemplation. (Remember rule #5?) We end up sheepishly paying about five times what we should have and we scramble out of The Seahorse as quickly as we can. Sinker, checkmate, strikeout.
Radisson Temple Bay Resort, here we come!
Hook, line, sinker, and a wonderful al fresco (actually, pretty much everything is al fresco here) dinner at The Wharf restaurant at the Radisson Temple Bay Resort with the music of the surf as background. Oh yeah, and a great, booming thunderstorm that night! Point made.
So, lessons learned (maybe) as Mani reminded us on our way back home the next day: “You are too cheatable. Too nice. If there is a picture (sign) with a price and you like the price, you buy. No price, you bargain. They say Rs10,000, you say Rs2,000 . . . and you walk away if you don’t like the price so they come after you . . . ”
Hook, line, sinker, yum.
And yet the vast majority of folks here are open, welcoming, and kind, always ready to smile and to chat.
So next week we head south again, past the Mahabs to Pondicherry and Auroville and we look forward to some more negotiations. As one of our new expat friends said, this country can get under your skin, cheatable or not. Indeed.