Uncle’s Shop, And Other Mysteries of The Indian Auto-Rickshaw

20140219_152150Where is Uncle’s shop? It’s where you are going if you got into an auto-rickshaw with a driver who has volunteered to drive you around for less than the metered rate. It may not be where you want to go, where you think you’re going, or where you’d like to go. But in the driver’s eyes, by taking him up on a reduced fare, you’ve entered into an implicit contract to be taken to a random store and nagged into buying something expensive enough that the shop can happily recoup the driver’s finders fee.

FYI- Bangalore auto-rickshaw fare is currently 25 rupee (Rs) for the first 1.9km, and 13Rs  for every kilometer thereafter. If the driver offers to take you around for 10 or 20Rs, you know they have plans. (Although there is a small chance that they are counting on you to be ignorant of the fact that the place they are offering to take you is 50 feet away.) Usually, a driver will offer to take you to a place for 4 to 8 times the metered rate (sometimes more if he has no idea where said place is–a not uncommon condition in Bangalore.) In other words, the driver will normally try to rip you off in the old-fashioned way (which eats at your pocket-book, but not at your time.)

If you find the new-fangled rip-off scheme to be a deplorable con, just remember to save some of your wrath for FaceBook, Google, and the other websites you commonly use. They almost all work on the same model. You get charged little or nothing to use said sites in exchange for agreeing to be shamelessly pitched stuff you don’t want or need.

What does Uncle’s shop sell? I hope you like a good mystery, because there’s no telling whether Uncle’s shop sells anything in which you have the slightest interest. If you are a single male, Uncle’s shop probably sells saris and pashminas. If you have a tiny apartment, Uncle’s shop probably specializes in 14 foot tall bronze statues of Ganesha. It could sell woven goods, knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, widgets, tsotchkes, or relics of a religion you know nothing about so you can engage in some low-grade impiety. (FYI- You may not realize this but for the devoted, it can be a bit offensive for a bunch of non-believers to be wearing “OM” symbols or having Buddha statues who aren’t Hindu/Yogic or Buddhist, respectively. Sort of the way many hardcore Christians feel about how Christmas was shanghai’d by a jolly old elf or Easter was overtaken by a giant bunny.) In some cases, Uncle’s shop will sell all of the aforementioned items and more.

Surely I will get an outstanding deal at Uncle’s shop, right? I mean, Uncle is not going to rip off his nephew’s customer, right? Wrong. First of all, there is an infinitesimally small chance that the driver is biologically related to the store owner in any way, shape, or form. It’s probably more likely that they’ve never formally met.

Second, let’s do some Uncle’s shop mathematics. We will call the wholesale cost of the product “C” and the bloated profit that the store owner would like “W” (for “wishful thinking profit”)  and the lowest profit “Uncle” is willing to accept “R” (for “reservation price profit.”) If you just walked into the shop off the street and bought said item you’d pay some amount ≤(C+W) and ≥(C+R).

However, now the driver expects a reward. [Granted, it may be nominal in the scheme of things.] We’ll call the fixed-rate payment to the driver “S” (for “sucker wrangling charge.”)  [You may wonder why I’m assuming this is a fixed-rate payment. Fair enough, if the driver is savvy, it will be percentage. However, my finding has been that between 60% and 80% of autorickshaw drivers in Bangalore don’t understand the concept of a map. I’m not saying they don’t know how to use a map. I’m saying that they don’t get that it’s a representation of the streets surrounding them. My point being, auto-rickshaw drivers are–as a group–not savvy. Granted, certain among them are really savvy. However, my point holds as long as we can except that S>0, for all S–whether fixed or a percentage.)

Long story short, now you will pay between (C+W+S) and (C+R+S), where S>0.  Long story shorter, going to Uncle’s shop with an auto driver will not save you money (unless you’re looking for something specific, and it will save you the value of time to have a guide to show you where to get what you’re after. Good luck with said guide being an auto driver, the driver doesn’t care what you want, he wants you to buy whatever Uncle’s shop is selling. You can buy what you want on your own time.) It’s true that you may find it worth it to pay the nominal extra amount for many reasons, i.e. convenience, a likable driver, etc. Just be informed.

How come it’s called Uncle’s shop, when nobody involved is the Uncle of anybody else involved? Indians use “auntie” and “uncle” as honorifics for older individuals who are in positions / stature commanding respect–it needn’t be a relative by blood. For auto drivers, this includes random shop owners who’ll pay them 50 rupee for dragging hapless tourists into the store.



DAILY PHOTO: Old School Rickshaw

Taken in October of 2013 in Agra.

Taken in October of 2013 in Agra

You don’t really see bicycle rickshaws in Bengaluru, but up north they’re common enough. This was taken in Agra, the town most famous for being home of the Taj Mahal. In some places these are called pedicabs. That best distinguishes them from autorickshaws (in India often called “auto” and in many other places called by the presumably onomatopoeic Thai designation of tuk-tuk) as well as from the original pulled rickshaw (where the puller walks or runs to propel the vehicle.) I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen a pulled rickshaw being used as a real means of transportation anywhere I’ve been in the world (though maybe in Cambodia.) You do see them as tourist photo ops in the same way one sees Hansom cabs and horse-drawn coaches in many US and Canadian cities.

DAILY PHOTO: How Many People Fit in an Auto-Rickshaw?

Taken October 12, 2013 in Agra, India

Taken October 12, 2013 in Agra, India

It’s a question that has been debated since the dawn of the Tuk-tuk. Like the question of how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie-Roll Tootsie-Pop, attempts to definitively answer the question have resulted only in controversy. The question?


In the highfalutin cities, people think that nobody is supposed to ride upfront with the driver, but elsewhere they’ve figured out that you can put at least one man on either side of the driver (as long as the weight of each man is fairly evenly matched–there’s only one tiny front wheel after all.) How many one can fit in the back is influenced by the average yoga skill level of the riders and whether one has any Twister (TM) grand-champions on board. 

There are myths of tuk-tuks containing entire villages tooling down the back-roads. Theoretical physicists tell us that you can pack them in until their density forms a self-sustaining black-hole, and then everybody out to the event horizon is drawn in… ya-da-ya-da-ya-da.

The answer is: “a lot.”


Lies My Tuk-Tuk Driver Told Me

Taken Sept 5, 2013 in Bangalore, India

Taken Sept 5, 2013 in Bangalore, India

Tuk-tuks or Autorickshaws  are the ubiquitous three-wheeled vehicles-for-hire seen throughout South and Southeast Asia. (Note: Owing to their evolution from walking or pedal rickshaws, they’re sometimes just called “rickshaw” for short, or even “pedicab” or “petty cab”–the latter likely a corruption of the former.) They’re an essential way to get around in the big cities of Mega-Asia, but almost everyone has a bad experience with one at some point.

Let me point out that I’m not suggesting that most tuk-tuk drivers are amoral liars, but as a tourist (or someone who looks like one) the drivers that approach you probably will be. The vast majority of drivers are honest, hard-working men (and the elusive woman) just trying to put food on the table. That’s why my key advice to people on the subject is, “Pick your driver, and don’t ride with the ones who pick you. Then always negotiate your fare–or make sure they will use the meter– before you get in.” The drivers who pick you often have rationalized that it’s alright to treat foreigners like crap. And I’m not so much talking about charging you a little more money (which I personally don’t mind), but more that it’s alright to waste your time or take you places you didn’t ask to go [and potentially much worse.]

Well, without further ado, I’ll share some of my interactions with drivers. This is inspired by a whooper I was told yesterday.

1.) Driver: “The Temple is closed.”
Me: “But there’s a line of Caucasians and Japanese people with cameras going into the place right this moment. I can see them as we speak.”
Driver: “Uhh, monks and nuns.”

2.) Driver: “That road closed. Big protests. Throwing stones. Very dangerous!”
Me: “But I can see all the way to the corner where we need to turn, there’s nobody there.”
Driver: “They hide. [Pantomiming popping up over a wall] Throw rocks.”

3.) Driver: “Meter[ed fare is] 200 Rupee, but I’ll take– only 150 Rupee.”
Me: “I just took a trip yesterday that was 50% farther and took twice as long, and the metered fare was 50 Rupee.”

4.) Driver: “But traffic very bad, VERY BAD. Premium rate time.”
Me: “But it’s Sunday morning at 8:00am. I haven’t heard a horn for half an hour, and I happen to know that there’s no such thing as ‘premium rate time.'”
Driver: “It’s new.”

5.) Driver: “You can’t get from here to there, except go past travel office.”
Me: “Sure you can. It’s one block over and then a straight shot of five kilometers. The travel office is four kilometers out-of-the-way.”
Driver: See lie #2