Sunday, June 8, 2008

Bargaining in the Barbershop

It's the barbershop, you know the rules...No fighting, no cussing, no Cause and no Bloodin' - and sit yourself down and act like you got some sense.
Murs & 9th Wonder, Barbershop (Murray's Revenge)

A weekly visit to the barbershop for a cut-throat has become one of my essential Indian rituals. I am lathered and shorn, massaged and perfrumed, always with the devotion of an artist. This is high-skilled labour, performed to perfection. And the price?
India is cheap. Cheaper than I thought it would be before I arrived, which was already cheap. It is almost insultingly cheap, a place where the gap between price and quality is almost heartbreaking. A good dinner should set you back no more than a pound, but you can fill yourself adequately with street-food for a third of that. A baseball cap will cost a couple of quid, an en-suite hotel room should be no more than four. India is cheap.

That makes it a backpacker's paradise, a place where you can live in relative luxury for $10 a day. As a result, it's an attractive place for those looking to while away the days in stunning surroundings, without falling into financial difficulty. This creates a strange change in mentality. Even if you come here with wads of cash, the low prices soon alter your perspective. When you realise that 100 rupees (just over a pound) is relatively expensive for a main course, you start to alter your consumption habits accordingly, even if your budget makes penny-pinching unnecessary. This is partly because you consume according to the company you keep, but it's also an issue of self-esteem - nobody wants to feel ripped off.

Backpackers also buy things in India - clothes, trinkets, carpets, things. And, like other countries with similar economies, you buy through bargaining. While I'm not a major purchaser of "objects" (at least not until the end of the trip, when thoughts must inevitably turn to presents for nearest and dearest), I've spent plenty of time with people who are. One of my strangest experiences, for example, was sitting in a boat and watching a couple barter over jewellery being hustled by the boatman next door. This lasted about half an hour, without a sale. Watching them in action, I realised that, try as I might, I can't get into the bargaining mentality. Not only am I awful at it, I can't even fathom the economics behind not having fixed prices. The first clause explains the second, I guess, but I'm still left deeply unsatisfied. Bartering may be part of the "experience" of travelling in the subcontinent, but is there a deeply shady morality behind it?

The shady morality, I think, comes from the traveller. Even the poorest of western backpackers brings with him/her stacks more cash than a vast majority of Indians will ever see, even if recent economic developments are taken into account. In this context, a 'tourist tax' isn't just reasonable, it's also deeply moral. My knowledge of economics is appalling, but I am convinced of this: the growing gap between rich and poor is shaping up to be the major source of instablity in the twenty-first century. Optimists can talk until the cows come home about the benefits of trickle-down economics, but allowing the wealth gap to widen will end in blood. One friend told me of a businessman who drives down Delhi in an orange lambourghini. This is - quite simply - an incitement to violence.

So I haven't minded being 'exploited' here and there; I've paid my tourist tax with pride. I guess my only hope is that all my transactions have been performed with dignity, that the seller hasn't laughed in my face when I've left the store. As long as that's not the case, I'm prepared to pay that little bit more.

I hope this doesnt come across as excessively self-righteous, and I also don't want to give the impression that I'm splashing the cash like some rap star. But I am getting increasingly annoyed at seeing people from Britain or France or Israel arguing over ten or twenty rupees. It's deeply distasteful.

I'm writing these lines - in righteous indignation - freshly shaven in the isolated village of Sumur in the Nubra Valley, close to the border with China. Here, the barber wanted to charge me 10 rupees. 10 rupees, 15 pence, for half an hour of his time, after which he has left me looking - quite frankly - invincible. After he quoted me the pittance, my mind drifted back to Amritsar. It was the third day of my journey, and I was feeling a lot more generous than now, not to mention a lot more ignorant about the consumer economy here. As I drifted through the most sensuous hairdressing experience I had ever had, I asked myself how much I was willing to offer him, whilst speculating on what his chutzpah would lead him to ask for. After an awkward pause, we came to the same figure, 300 rupees, astronomical even in the context of first-week naievity.
Paying that every week would be excessive, of course. It might even be a little bit patronising. So I've settled on 20 rupees here, 30 rupees there, depending on how safe I felt when the blade was gliding over my adam's apple. To the barber in Sumur, I have 50, which left him quietly surprised, but not offended. Quite simply, it's a reasonable price for a western tourist to pay for a high-quality service. Part of the role of the travellers it to put money into the local economy. We should do this with dignity, without excessive and shameful bargaining. After all, we are only passing through, fired by cliches about memories that will last forever. Amidst the constant inspiration, let's not forget about those who will be left behind.


Anonymous said...

Damn right. Fine article.

I think the only issue to consider is, as you suggest, embarrassing the provider of the service by making a overly patronising display of largesse.

And re: trickle down economics, I suppose the development dilemna is how to balance lifting people out of absolute poverty without allowing relative poverty to balloon as the gap between rich and poor opens up.


nic said...

this is my favourite. i have often thought exactly the same

the 'invincible' line was laugh out loud

guccipiggy said...

I totally empathise.
One of the most embarrassing moments of my life was watching two 'friends' I had made on my travels in Thailand bully a restaurant owner into slashing his already meagre bill, due to the fact that there was no poppadoms with there rather odd Thai Vindaloo. They then insisted on sitting in his bar, watching the football and taking up some of the nicest seats, without buying a thing, for a few hours. The man was almost in tears by the end of it, and they seemed to delight in a thoroughly economic evening.
Needless to say I jettisoned them ASAP.

The point is, the longer people spend in countries such as India, the more remote reality becomes, as they get more and more absorbed my the thoroughly amoral backpacker economics. Haggling may be part of the culture, but ripping off poor people is never cool. On the other hand- as you've no doubt seen in Kashmir- there's some fairly shrewd businessmen at work on the subcontinent. I'm still not sure how I paid 1,000 rupees for a silk pashmena in Srinagar that a mate secured for 200.....