Benjamin Marsh is the Pastor to Youth at Cary Alliance Church in Cary, NC. He has worked various and sundry jobs throughout his short life, including: Washington Director of the Dalit Freedom Network; SAT tutor; South Asia Analyst for the Institute on Religion and Public Policy; author; fry cook; pet owner (it is a job). He is married to Olivia Marsh (www.marshpatents.com) and the father of two little'uns, Aurora and Alice. His first book, Rules for Dating My Daughter, is available on Amazon.com and lulu.com. Personally, I like to claim him as a really good friend I've had the privilege of knowing for several years now. I think you'll enjoy his story.
So there I was in India. It was my first time. It was quite a time, too. At the end of my ten-day trip I got such a bad case of food poisoning that I could not leave my hotel room. I had to cancel a few important meetings. I spent a great deal of time in my bed watching overdubbed Bollywood flicks. When I called the hotel to ask for a refund on the meal that made me sick (there were some unwashed onions in a curry), they sent flowers instead. And charged me for it...
But that is how India works. Everyone there is trying to make the extra Rupee by hook or by crook. Before I came I was warned of the White Man's Tax, a levee placed on every good and service by the seller to white folks from foreign countries. Where a napkin might cost ten cents to a neighbor, from me they asked two dollars. Bargaining is a way of life in India.
Bargaining is THE way of life in India.
My rude awakening to this truth came when I took an auto rickshaw from my hotel to the place of my meetings, a distance of about five miles. I came forth from my (soon-to-make-me-ill) hotel with my chin held high and my chest out, ready as Alexander to conquer India. I was going to important meetings with important people to accomplish important things.
A diminutive older Indian man with a dirty white linen shirt and a red rag wrapped around his head walked to me, his head stooped. "Sirrah, need a ride?"
My chariot awaits!
I said I did and told him my destination. He quoted me 100 Rupees, a small sum by American standards. I nodded in agreement and we took off.
I will save a full description of driving on Indian roads for another day because completeness requires words that far exceed the abilities of this humble author. Imagine a lone bird in flight. Now imagine that lone bird in flight in the middle of a pack. Now imagine the bird is going one way and the pack is going another. Add to that scene a pack of 747's flying in every which way around the wrong-way pack of birds into which you are flying. On top of all of that add a few flying cows (cast into the air, perhaps, by a trebuchet), and you have a fairly accurate picture of Indian traffic.
I arrived at my destination having suffered only a mild heart attack and paid the man his money.
Meetings came and went. Important things happened. I went home weary and slept the deep sleep of a champion.
The next morning I strode out from the hotel, my head held high and my chest protruding with pride. I had more important things to accomplish in this mysterious and ancient land.
"Sirrah, do you need a ride?"
It was the diminutive driver from the day before.
"I do, indeed," I replied, looking over his head with some pride.
As we got into the car I noticed a black box affixed to the backside of his seat.
"What is that?" I asked my dear driver.
"Is that a meter?"
He said nothing. He shook his head in the mysterious Indian way that means yes and no at the same time.
"Turn it on," I said.
He shook his head again and made to take off.
"Turn it on," I said again, louder.
He shook his head and said nothing. After a brief impasse I made a motion to exit.
"No no, OK."
He turned on the meter. Our hellish ride through the Indian streets proceeded as it had the day before. When we arrived at the destination, the meter read 43 Rupees, less than half of what I had paid the man in my "expert" negotiations the day before.
As I got out of the car and handed him the money, he looked at me with a massive grin. I was confused. He had made less than the day before. I waved him off. As he left, he called back:
"Yesterday you pay one hundred AH AHAHAHAHA!"
He grin had nothing to do with the little amount I paid him. It had everything to do with the fact that he would have a story to tell to his fellow rickshaw drivers, a tale of ripping off the man. He would lord over them with his extra 57 Rupees he culled from the soft fleshy hands of the proud white man from America.
My head sank to my chest. I was a stranger in a strange land.