Money

Every day, after the rain, the hotel staff, on hands and knees, use rags to dry the marble floors.

This is not a small hotel; it’s palatial in a literal sense. Each floor has a different set of terraces and courtyards. There are several fountains, several shrines, urns and statues artfully arranged, frescoed walls, painted ceilings, hammered metal doors. We watched a team of four young men polish the giant gold entry door. It was already clean.

All this, for just over $50 USD a night to sleep all three of us, sumptuous breakfasts included (with service: if you start toast in the toaster, it will be brought to you on a plate with butter and jam).

The wealth gap manifests differently here than it does at home. It makes financial sense for all these people to polish the floors, or for a driver to sit and wait for us for hours on the anticipation of a $2 fare across town. Unlike in Seattle and San Francisco, housing and food can be had across a very wide span of prices. Lunch at a street stall yesterday was 90 rupees (just over a dollar) for the three of us; dinner at the hotel was 3,000. Both were tasty, fresh, and filling.

We’re foreign in such an obvious way: light skin, light hair in my case, Western-style clothes. We’ve seen other foreign tourists in Jaipur, but not many. I think the others must be getting around in hired cars; they only appear at the tourist sites. We, meanwhile, catch stares as our open-sided rickshaws weave through traffic.

Rich-white-tourist travel always feels strange. I’m culturally cheap; at home, I’ll pick restaurant meals based primarily on price. I’ll ride the bus for a hour home from the bar l because I’d balk at $30 for a much shorter Uber ride. Here, I’m not taking rickshaws to be cheap; they seem to be how locals get around.

India has haggling culture, something we don’t have at home, and negotiating the right price is interesting. We usually get told some exorbitant price — which would be a steal at home. Then, the question is: what’s the right price? What price would not reinforce the idea that we’re easy grifts, but adequately compensates for services rendered — including the service of speaking English with foreigners who aren’t good at this game?

Rick went shopping for shoes. The moment our feet touched sidewalk, vendors from every stall pleaded loudly for the three of us to enter.

“Please sir! Small price. Looking is free. Ma’am, you like shoes? These will look beautiful. How many pairs?”

It’s overwhelming. Nobody is grabbing, but everybody is reaching. If you go in a stall, three guys will put shoe after shoe in front of your face. If you show interest in a pair, they look up a price in a book: 2,500 rupees. No? Okay, for you, a discount. 2,000. How many do you want? Okay, 1,000. What price do you like? Sir, where are you going? You can have them for 500.

“I never buy under pressure,” Rick says.

“No pressure, no pressure,” says the English speaking guy. “Tell him what price you like. He needs to sell some shoes to you. How much do you want them for?”

We walk away into the continued cacophony of every vendor’s attention focused on us.

It’s not all pushy money games. Actually, people on the street have been very helpful and warm. We get unsolicited but friendly advice all the time, and people are happy to point us to their favorite local restaurant, the exit of a confusing market, the nearest fruit stand. But we would have liked to shop a bit if it weren’t so intense and draining.

Rick does get shoes eventually, lovely leather slippers soaked in oil to be waterproof. He pays about $7.50 USD, a sixth of the asking price.

Eileen and I get lucky the next day, finding much more relaxed vendors on our way to a lake hike. We get earrings for the wedding, scarves against the sun. I bargain, because I know what it’s worth to me. It’s a game, after all.

Previous: Above Jaipur | Next: Accidental Trainhopping

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Kelsey Breseman

An adventurer, woodland creature, and engineer. Currently working on data ownership models, environmental accountability, and intentional community.