Friday, April 17, 2009

a new skill

I felt sorry for the bicycle rickshaw driver.  He was older than normal, looked very thin, and had missing teeth.  The few that remained were stained red from chewing addictive betel nut.  We usually ignore the pedicab drivers who shout offers of transport to us, so as not to encourage them.  Even if we need a bicycle rickshaw, we'lll go to one of the non-yellers.  It doesn't really work because we still get harassed every 30 seconds when walking anywhere in India.  

But in this case, I wanted to help the gentleman, so we took him up on his offer to squire us 2.5mi in 90 degree heat back to our hotel in Varanasi.  For us it was a steal - he only asked for 50 rupees ($1).

Unfortunately, sympathy for the downtrodden-looking is exactly the wrong selection criterion for a bicycle rickshaw driver.  He bicycled slower than we could have walked.  We were passed by several bicycle rickshaws with fitter drivers along the way. Much smarter would have been to pick a strong rickshaw driver.

He turned to us and smiled, missing teeth and red-stained gums flashing, "Is Hard Work!"

Were we supposed to respond?  We weren't sure.

He repeated, "Is Hard Work!"

It seemed he was going to continue saying this until we said something.  Seeing no harm in appreciating his efforts, I replied "Yes, we can see it is very hard work!  It is hot!".  Marisa nodded in affirmative agreement.

He was too short to properly sit on the seat, probably about 5 feet tall.  He was quite skinny, and not very strong.  We watched with concern as he stood on the pedals, pushing up and down.  He continued to pedal in this standing fashion at a painfully slow 3 miles per hour, his entire body slowly moving up and down.   

Hs head turned around again, "Are you married?"


"Do you have children?"

This question comes up a lot in India.   We find it strange because we are obviously travelling without children.  Perhaps many couples flee to India leaving their children at home, but to us it seems strange.  "No, no children!"

"I have three children.  I work hard at rickshaw for them for food!  This is Hard Work!"

After riding another five minutes interspersed with nearly continuous declarations of, "Is Hard Work!", the driver turned his head again, "Is Hard Work!  You try!?!?!"

I took a look at Marisa.  I wasn't sure if he was serious.  "No, that's ok!"

One minute passed.  He turned again, repeated: "Is Hard Work!  You try?!?!?!"

Apparently the rickshaw driver really wanted me to drive.  I looked at Marisa and whispered,  "Should I try it?  He seems to want me to since he's asked twice." 

"Why not?", she whispered back.  Marisa told me later she knew why the driver had asked me to drive, but she encouraged me anyway.  Our guide book told us that Indian vendors are very happy to teach tourists their craft, and she wanted me to have a real India experience.

"OK, I'll drive!" I yelled forward to the driver.

The driver stopped.  The bicycle rickshaw has a small bicycle seat in front with normal bicycle handles.  In the back on two large wheels is mounted a bench seat for two people with a tattered cotton canopy.  It is effectively a giant tricycle.  I took up a perch on the bicycle seat, and the driver moved to the back with Marisa.

We took off.  The driver showed me how to brake and how to use the bell.  I rang the bell greedily at the nearest approach of anyone.  If there's one thing I've learned in India, it's that using the horn is a requirement for turning, stopping, passing, or simply moving.

At first I was uncertain.  I had never pedaled a giant tricycle with two people on the back before, especially on a crowded Indian street filled with pedestrians, bicycles, cows, motorcycles, and the occasional honking, frustrated car.

However, I got the hang of it in less than a minute.  The first thing I noticed was that I was pedaling the rickshaw at three times the speed of the professional driver.

He yelled at me, now from behind rather than in front, "Is Hard Work, right!"

I didn't realize at this point that the driver was trying to drum up sympathy for himself.  My first thought was, "No, this is quite easy."   Marisa and I have rented bikes many times on our trip.  Because of her knee, she can't pedal, so we often rent a single bike where she sits on the back above the wheel, or we rent a tandem and Marisa doesn't pedal.  I even carted Marisa around on the back of a single bike at 9000 feet elevation near Tibet in China, which was not easy.  Even with the additional weight of the driver, this rickshaw was much easier to drive than a normal bike where I had to balance with Marisa's weight.  

In any case, to be polite to the driver, I translated from English to Courteous, "Yes!  Hard Work!  You work hard all day!"

I began to pass other rickshaw drivers.  Rickshaw in front, 5s away.  I flit my eyes to the right, hit the bell, swerve around, check left, swerve back in.  I avoid a cow, big eyes and horns pointed my way.

Again, the driver from the back says, "Is Hard Work!", but amends,  "You do good!"

I reply, "We ride a lot of bicycles at home!"  I didn't add because it'd be too hard to explain, but I was also very used to running in Indian cities, which requires the same fast reflexes and attention to surroundings as driving the rickshaw.

I had started to enjoy driving and was looking like I knew what I was doing and having fun.  The driver seemed to be disappointed.  This was puzzling at first, but later it became clear why. 

He indicated he wanted to drive again, so we switched spots, and he pedaled very slooowly for 20 minutes back to our hotel.  He went so slowly I thought about getting out and walking beside the rickshaw, to ease the load.  Marisa and I discussed it and decided I shouldn't do that because it might embarass him.

When we arrived at the hotel I handed the driver 100 rupees and said, "Can you give me 30 rupees back?"  We had agreed on 50 rupees, so this was a 40% tip.  We debated over the tip.  We felt bad for him but we also didn't want to encourage future disengenous behavior.

"I have no change", he replied, with the scamming-gleam in his eye I've learned to identify in rickshaw drivers.

"What, you have no change?"

"I just started work!  I have no change."  I looked skeptical, as this is a common tactic for Indian rickshaw drivers.  They hope that even though you've agreed on less, their claimed lack of change will cause you to just give them the higher amount out of frustration.  He then paused and seeing my skepticisim continued with the justification, "I have 3 children and a family that needs to eat!"

I don't see how that was supposed to be reassuring.  If he'd simply asked for a bigger tip, that'd be one thing, but it seemed like he was trying to justify his 'no change' by saying he needed the extra money!  I suspected he had rupees in his pocket that he didn't want to show me.

Unfortunately for him, we were well aware of the rickshaw 'no change' scam.  By the end of our trip we had 50 ten rupee notes in a giant wad in our backpack.  We had plenty of change.  I pulled 60 rupees out (10 rupees less than I would have given him if he'd given us change) and handed it to him.  He complained again, "I have a family!  You don't want to give 100 rupees?"

"We agreed on 50 rupees, so that's a 10 rupee tip."  We walked off before we had to argue with him more.

Part of us feels bad we didn't give him more money if he indeed needed it.  It's very unsettling to be pulled around by someone else using his muscles.  It goes against our egalitarian anti-classist beliefs (which may be a peculiarity of Americans?).  (In India, where there's such a huge divide between the rich and the poor, many people seem comfortable with having servants.)

On the other hand, he was a horrible rickshaw driver, he was not upfront about how much payment he expected, and he spent the entire ride trying to guilt us into giving him more than his original quote.

Rickshaw drivers, tour guides, bell captains, etc. often ask foreigners for large tips or demand double/triple the standard rate for their services, because they know it's cheap to Americans.  You know you're getting screwed, and generally human instinct tells us to try to not get screwed.  On the other hand they have much less to their name than you do, and you can easily afford to pay them more.  We grappled constantly trying to reconcile these 2 things while we were in India.

I think if we went back to India, I'd offer the rickshaw drivers double the fare if they let me drive the rickshaw.  You pay $15 to rent a bicycle in San Francisco, so it'd still be a steal.


  1. You're a fantastic writer steven! keep these coming

  2. What an interesting ending - comparing the price of a rickshaw ride in India to that of a bike rental in San Francisco. One of the things I value most from our trip to India was experiencing the different cultures along the way. But I can tell you, it's easier to do 35 years later than when we were actually there.

  3. Also, notice how classism is way worse in a socialist country like India? And tip-scams like this are a lot more common in places where an economy is crippled by socialist policies and people have to do jobs that would probably not exist (or only exist as a novelty) in a capitalist country.

  4. Hey, good entry! It's kind of ironic tho, don't you think?, that the rickshaw driver "got you to do it," when you spent your entire childhood getting your siblings (mostly Sarah) "to do it." Then after you "did" his job, you paid him to be the passenger! Seriously, tho, it sounds like a lot of fun to drive the rickshaw.

  5. He may have been a bad rickshaw driver, but he sure gave you a good story for your blog. All things considered, the fare and the tip look like money well spent.

  6. vijay man you really stretch your ideology into any corner you can eh?

    i don't think it's socialism that is the primary component of classism in india! maybe the caste system has something to do with it.. and that's been around far longer than the concept of socialism.

    i know a carfree guy in sf who has a rickshaw that he takes his family around in. he gets groceries in it, they go around the city. quite amazing.

  7. I sort agree with omar here, vijay. I think the tip and taxi-overcharging scams are ueber capitalist. They aren't obviously the result of socialism. As far as I could tell, there is absolutely no regulation of rickshaws in India. No one there uses the meter, so you never know what the price really should be. In countries with governmental regulation, you don't get scammed on the price. (although perhaps the price is higher than it could be, as a result of the lack of competition because of the regulation.) India was a big contrast with China, where we always went by the meter and we never felt like we were getting screwed.

    I know the standard libertarian argument is that private companies could essentially provide that regulation by taxis affiliating with them, and then the companies do the regulation. Customers could know to use only taxis affiliated with reputable agencies.

    That system is either unworkable, or it has not emerged yet in India. I suspect it's unworkable because price discrimination helps the taxi drivers. They take one look at the customer and quote higher prices to people who are obviously better off (or look stupid), and they earn more money that way. Locals don't need taxis affiliated with a company because they know enough about the market to know what fare is fair.

    I don't even feel that bad about the price discrimination, because I really can afford to pay (much) more than the average Indian.