Thursday, September 27, 2012

When Not to Haggle

Taking a little break from campaigning against the incompetent, lying Obama misadministration, and its latest stunts: pushing dubious polling results, and a continually evolving narrative on Libya to try to convince us that we are all idiots. I anticipate some sort of US retaliation in Libya soon, which will have the Obamistas developing yet another narrative claiming that with their lies they were just lulling the enemy into a false sense of confidence. Sigh, these people are hopeless. We need a change.

Instead of dealing with all that, I am on another trip down memory lane. Just like that old fart neighbor you never want to invite to your barbecue, "Hey, that reminds me of when I was going down the Zambezi, and . . . "  In keeping with our President, I apologize for the fact that we still live in a free country. You can turn away and read something else, or you can have the Sheriff question me at midnight. I just want to write down some of this stuff before I forget it.

If you want a treaty negotiated, a tough set of talking points delivered, or a UN or OAS resolution drafted or destroyed, call me. A fierce and determined negotiator, I, however, am a terrible shopper. Nowadays, I buy everything over the internet to avoid that personal interaction scenario. I most emphatically hate and fear haggling, despite having spent most of my life in places where haggling is expected. In those countries, if you do not haggle over the price of shoes, tomatoes, oranges, grapes, brass candlesticks, or carpets, to name a few items, then you have "LOSER SUCKER" indelibly stamped on your forehead; your wallet is seen as the common inheritance of all mankind. You are Hester Prynne with her scarlet letter; you are Cain with his mark; you are, you are, well, you are me. Fortunately for me, however, I acquired a pretty good compensation for my failing: a Spanish wife with haggling in her DNA. Unsuspecting realtors, landlords, rug merchants, contractors, and car dealers never knew what hit them. She grinds them down until they cry--and then presses them some more. Legions of vendors all over the world have crossed swords with her, and come out second best. One car dealer in Florida made me promise never to bring her back, as he handed me the keys to my Bronco, along with a huge discount. After our visit to the bazaar in Marrakech, rumor had it that her picture was posted with instructions for merchants to slam down their shutters, and flee on sight. Our home's decor and our exploding self-storage unit serve as testaments to her haggling skills. Never mention "fixed price" around her.

I only saw her lose once: in Pakistan. This is that story.

Back when I knew it, Islamabad was a raw, unfinished town. It had become the new Pakistani capital in the 1960s to replace overcrowded and Sindhi-dominated Karachi, appease the Punjabis, the country's largest ethnic group, and generate lots of building contracts. The city also served as a "golden cage" for foreigners; the Pakistanis tried to discourage travel by diplomats to the rest of Pakistan. Islamabad was marked by Brasilia-style monuments and architecture, cavernous government buildings, big concrete houses with high walls, wide avenues, and an attempt at organizing the city into numbered sections with a logical lay out of shops, restaurants, roads, and addresses. It stood in contrast to the adrenaline-inducing chaos in nearby Rawalpindi and in every other Pakistani city. It was relatively clean; public services worked fairly well; the air was not polluted; traffic was not bad; and except for when mobs sought to attack the embassy, it proved relatively easy and safe to get around. It also had a lot of roads to nowhere: a broad sweeping boulevard, for example, might run a mile or two, and then revert to a narrow dirt road that would end among a collection of mud huts. Construction was a bit haphazard; over the years, different governments devoted differing levels of funding and priority to finishing the capital. I have not been there in years, and don't know how it looks now.

In those ancient days, we had a small four-door Chevy Chevette, our first new car. It was a pretty good machine, and quite peppy once I removed the stupid catalytic converter--and, of course, my wife had gotten a good price from the dealer in Virginia. My little Chevette, however, had one little issue: as it was "Made in USA," it put the driver on the left. In Pakistan, traffic moves British-style, on the left side of the road, most of the time. That meant the driver sat kerb-side. When trying to pass a lumbering truck or bus, you could not easily see if another lumbering truck or bus headed your way as you down-shifted, said your prayers, and pulled out to pass on the right. This maneuver could result particularly tricky at night. Pakistanis often drove with their lights off, convinced that "prolonging" the lives of their batteries compensated for the risk of shortening their own. Religious scholars can debate if you have claim on any virgins or raisins if you die saving a battery. Bottom line: when helming a left-hand-drive car in Pakistan, it helped to have a passenger in that right seat with iron nerves, a good sense of distance and speed, and a paid up life insurance policy.

Back from weeks in dusty, agitated, and anarchic Peshawar, we were enjoying the clean, calm, and boring capital. One afternoon, the Diplowife and I cruised on a paved but not completely finished road in one of the more "raw" sections of town. The road had considerable amounts of idled construction equipment scattered along its shoulders, but not much traffic. It began to rain. "Rain" is an understatement. It is a tired cliche, but the water came down in sheets, thick curtains that reduced visibility almost to zero, and created instant mini-lakes in the street. Slowing to a first-gear crawl, I leaned forward in my seat, straining to see ahead, windshield wipers maniacally struggling with the monsoon. My peripheral vision picked up a dark shadow moving towards the front on the right. My wife said, "Careful! Some idiot on a bicycle is passing us!"

Let me digress for a moment. Pakistan has amazing bicycle riders. I never understood why Pakistan has not produced an endless list of Tour de France victors. Poor Pakistanis would ride big, heavy, black, one-gear Chinese-made bicycles over the most incredible terrain, in all sorts of weather, at high speed, and over long distances often carrying all sorts of stuff and even a passenger or two. It was awe inspiring.

One of these riders was now passing us in the rain. A good rider, however, is not necessarily smart person. Here we had a case in point. The blur slowly pulled ahead and disappeared into the rain. A few seconds later, an incredible sound came up through the floorboards: crunching metal, breaking glass, screams, something dragging. My wife yelled, "I think he's under the car!"

Ol' Mohammed "Lance" Khan, not happy with just passing us, had cut sharply left across the front of our Chevette, losing forward momentum, letting us catch, and, well, T-bone him. I stopped the car, left the engine on, told my wife to stay put and lock the doors, jumped out into the rain, and circled to the front. There he was, wedged tight with his bike under the car, alternately yelling and moaning. The rain, of course, intensified as I tried to pull him out. I had to lie prone on the muddy street to pull and twist the bike handlebars and the bent front wheel. I slowly dragged him out. He looked in bad shape: bloody, groggy, and incoherent. I stood up, trying to figure out how to put him into my car, and then noticed we were not alone. Despite the downpour, a crowd had formed around the car. Dozens of young men squatting or standing a few feet away, just watching. Nobody offered to help. They just watched. Their numbers growing, pushing closer. Beginning to feel very alone and vulnerable, I pointed at the supine cyclist and said in Urdu, "Help me! Hospital!" Nobody moved. They were muttering. The mood was getting ugly. No way I would make it to the car.

Let me digress for another moment. Thinking back, this event reminded me of the old joke about the pastor who upon seeing the flood waters rise, decided to wait for a sign from God before vacating his church. A parishioner came by in his 4X4 and offered the reverend a lift. "No, I await a sign from God." The waters rose further, and another member of his flock came by in a boat. Again, the reverend demurred, "Waiting for a sign from God." The reverend made his way to the roof; a Coast Guard helicopter came and lowered its hoist. Again, no, he would wait. The pastor drowns, goes to heaven, and angrily confronts God, "I was waiting for your sign. You let me drown!" God replies, "I sent you a jeep, a boat, and a helicopter. What more did you want?"

Well, now I, like that apocryphal reverend, very much needed a sign, and pronto . . . a large white taxi van came slowly pushing its way through the crowd, and halted a few feet from me. The Pakistani cabbie got out, and said in perfect English, "Sir, this could get very troublesome. I suggest you pay the injured cyclist two hundred rupees {about twenty dollars} and let me take him away before these people exact vengeance." He turned to the crowd and yelled at them in Urdu, Punjabi, and Pashto. They backed up a bit. "I told them you acknowledge your fault and will pay an ample compensation." This sounded fine: it was worth twenty bucks to get out of this mess. My calculations, however, had not factored in the DNA of the lady in the car.

I helped the taxi driver put the bicyclist and his bag of smashed cola bottles inside the van, and tie the mangled bike to the roof rack. I edged back to the Chevette, smiling at the crowd, and tapped on the window. The Diplowife partially lowered the window. I explained the arrangement.

"Give me two hundred rupees."
"What? It was his fault! He should give us two hundred rupees! No way!"
"Give me two hundred rupees before we get killed."
"No way! Tell him one hundred, and he must promise to be more careful."
"Give me two hundred rupees."
"I am going to talk to him!"
"No! Give me two hundred rupees, now! Please!"
"Sir," the cabbie, standing close behind me, water pouring off his nose, nervously interjected, "this does not look good. We must end this incident, now."

The Diplowife reluctantly relented, passing me two one hundred rupee notes. I gave them to the cabbie. He held the soggy bills over his head for all to see, and loudly proclaimed, "Alhamdulilah! It is finished!"

The men began to melt away. The rain petered out. I was left standing wet, cold, muddy, but thankfully alone in the middle of the street: the Chevette's four cylinders still happily banging away.

I don't know if that taxi driver gave the money to the "victim." He might have been a scam artist, but sometimes salvation comes in unexpected forms. When it does, don't haggle.



15 comments:

  1. Thank God the Diplowife knew when to trust your judgement (and poor haggling skills).

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    1. She is upset that I have written about this. I am now in trouble . . .

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  2. I too have a "Latin" wife. I know where you are brother. I know where you are.

    Glad to have found your blog.

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  3. This is damn fine writing. I hope to see something from Diplomad in NRO or its equivalent. Consistent with the post, Diplomad is giving something away that for which he should be paid. This post hit home. My mother was Latin and I could have written the part about Arab rug merchants and car dealers myself, she was one relentless bitch. Although I must add that my wife is Romanian and she makes mom look like an autistic piker with a speech impediment when it comes to the deal. She finagles deals for things it would never occur to me are even up for negotiation.

    Ahem, unfortunately I take after my pop. I once witnessed him, Gods honest truth, negotiate the price up of a lawn mower our neighbor was selling him. Dad, “Cecil are you sure, really sure, you’ll let it go for only a hundred…” “Here take at least 150$” sheesh. I buy my autos from Costco to avoid any similar embarrassments to the family name.

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    1. Many thanks. I am with your dad. I just don't haggle well at all!

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  4. Thanks for the morning chuckle. My younger sister was a born haggler. At age 10, she delighted in embarrasing her older sister by haggling over every item in the store...any store. She's rich. I'm not. Enough said.

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    1. My wife has haggled at electronics stores--and you know, it often works.

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  5. My wife's southern Chinese, and would eat the lot.

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    1. Ha! A challenge has been thrown down! A Haggleoff!

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    2. In the days of record stores with little listening booths, Daphne, age 10, haggled the price of a 45 rpm because it had a scratch on the cover. I was 16, silent and embarrassed. She was animated and loud. Owner said that if she was older, he would hire her. He caved. She didn't and got the record for a reduced price.

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    3. Count me in! My wife is Korean. When she negotiated the rental price of our house in Germany, she had our husky German farmer landlord trembling after a few minutes. He quickly assented to her demands. Later he told me, auf Deutsch (which she doesn't speak) to please keep my wife away from him. He was terrified of her!

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  6. My ayah taught me how to haggle at the market in New Delhi when I was 8. I'm basically an ethnic Celt but still win my battles in the barrio markets when I go back to visit the Caribbean. Looking forward to testing my mettle on a return visit to India this spring. I love this story and it brings back vivid memories. Glad yr Latina firebrand caved in this particular circumstance, though. Sticky situation indeed. Thank you for sharing. I'm so very glad I found your blog. -Diplobrat

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  7. God bless our wives. They jealously marshal our resources, tend to us when we're ailing, vigorously defend our community standing and are little concerned with refueling a car after shopping. What would we do without them?

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  8. I once had a wonderful Iranian neighbor that I was helping since he didn't speak English very well when he first moved here. When he got his property tax bill in the mail he came over and asked me what it was. I told him and he said I should call the tax man and tell him to come over so they could talk about this since it was so high. I explained that we didn't do that in America. He said in Iran when the tax man came down the street, he sent some of his tailor shop workers home and then told him business was bad. They had a drink and haggled over the tax. I still get embarrassed when I go shopping with his wife and she haggles over every purchase.

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    1. Tax man, yes. I have lived in many countries where you haggle with the tax man and just end up paying him to lower your bill.

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