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How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off

Ripoffs in Armenia are like mullets: business up front, party in the back. That is, they’ll either try to hit you up for a large amount before the transaction or ask you for more just before you’re done. If up front they’ll walk away from the deal if you say no. If on the back-end they’ll back down and play by the agreement. And this is a pretty standard tactic around the world – I’ve written about the back end ripoff in India.

Armenia in General

Now I want to make myself clear up front – I think Armenians are generally a very honest bunch. But it’s hard making a living here. There’s nearly no room for profit and what you do get is usually eaten up by some random thing that comes up like official bribes, injury or having your flower shop run over. So I don’t blame Armenians – or any honest business scammer for that matter – from trying to make an easy Dram or Drachma. But that doesn’t mean I have to just give it up. I refuse to be a stereotypical sucker.

Business Up Front

For a certain segment of the ripoff artists out there, they’re willing to risk a low profit for a huge one. Some taxi drivers, for example, when they see you with bags in a touristy part of town will refuse you the standard fare and will only quote you an exorbitant one. Even if they know there’s only a 50% chance you’ll go with them. If they can make in 30 minutes what they’d normally make in 5 hours they’ll take the chance.

And when you stand up for yourself and refuse to pay that, the up front ripoffs tend to dissolve. They’ll usually let you walk away but will back down and pay your price. If they pay your price then you’re probably still getting ripped off, just not as bad.

There’s a large segment of the population who calculate how much to charge by adding a percentage to the cost. That’s what Marx and Engels argued was the true value of anything. It’s easy to see why they felt that way. But there are several faulty assumptions there, such as assuming no value for time not worked (ie. either infinite time or full time employment), taking risks (ie. someone might pay more for a car than a horse-drawn carriage) and other factors. Thus is the folly of supply-side economics.

Party in the Back

The other typical ripoff is when someone asks you for more just before you’re done. The reason given is usually something like you used more resources than you were supposed to, it took extra long or somehow otherwise you owe extra. Sometimes they will argue about what you agreed on or just simply say they want more. In taxis they might make the excuse that you had bags to put in the trunk, or it is night, or the airport cost is more, or they may just drive around in circles hoping you’ll think it was a long way away. At restaurants they may add extra items to your bill or round up when giving you change.

Not all of these tactics are outright fraud, many are just the custom. If your bill is 10.78 and there are no pennies in the country it may be expected that you’ll pay 10.80 instead. And in some countries there is a higher fare for taxis at night. But these are the exceptions. And if you’ve already negotiated a price, or if the meter is running just pay what you should.

Avoiding Ripoffs

When negotiating up front, don’t feel like you have to buy from a particular vendor. If you don’t know the price of something it’s OK to just ask casually and walk away. Odds are there’s a nicer one of whatever you’re eyeing at a shop a couple of doors down. If you get to the point of negotiating without knowing some relative costs you’re already at a disadvantage. Also know what you’ll pay up front, don’t let them decide that for you. That’s true for services as well as for products.

Don’t back down when asked for more at the end. Agree on a price and stick to it. Show the price written down on your phone’s calculator or similar. Some of these people are just bullies – if you stand up to them they quickly shrink away, but if you let them take advantage of you they’ll keep doing it. And don’t feel like you have to stay engaged, sometimes just walking away will make them stop asking. That’s especially true for taxis where, once you’ve paid the fair fare there isn’t any need to stick around. The taxi driver might call after you a time or two but he’s not going to follow you.

And keep in mind that some people will try both approaches. They’ll beat you up on the front end and at the end they’ll ask for more at the end. I’ve found that typically if you compromise on your price up front they’ll more frequently try to get money at the end. But if you stick to your price they’ll judge you as unlikely to pay.

In some places there are certain signals to make or avoid making. For example in Armenia the travelers who are ethnically Armenian but from a wealthy country tend to speak a different dialect. Locals pick up on that and will try to take advantage of their long-lost cousins. At markets in China the sellers and buyers use hand signals to signify quantity – if you know the hand signals you’re saying that you’ve done this all before and won’t be fooled. And negotiation has its rule of thumb in different places. In some you cut the price in half and offer that; in others you drop a zero or two from the asking price. And it’s always important to know how to check the authenticity of what you’re buying as compared to the knock-offs. For example, silk threads will burn separately, whereas the imitation synthetic materials melt together. You can search for how to spot a fake on the Internet and you’ll be informed when you buy. Often when you show this knowledge the shop keeper will go into the back or reach under the counter for the real stuff, smile at you and treat you with more respect.

Getting ripped off is a part of traveling. When you find out you’ve been rooked, laugh about it. It probably wasn’t for very much and use it as a chance to learn a lesson for next time. Applaud the savvy shopkeeper who can spot a sucker who has more money than sense…even if sometimes that sucker is you.

Lafayette I Have Come

I’ve returned to Paris after 12 years. One of the formative trips of my travel style and of my life for that matter. So coming back here gives me the chance to revisit myself in a way, too. Like the military man of World War I, paying tribute to the Marquis de La Fayette who, during the American Revolution shaped our country, I have come to Paris.

There’s definitely some of the old snooty Paris I remember. Like when I sat down at a place, asked for a menu and was told it was not a restaurant indignantly in French and nearly shooed away. Maybe a cafe only I thought as I stood up to leave. Then noticed the “Restaurant Boulangerie” sign above the awning. It was this attitude to which my friend muttered “frog” under his breath last time I was here.

But that’s the exception and definitely not the rule. Most people here are very friendly to foreigners, once you engage them. Like the waitress where I ended up eating that night. She apologized for her poor English (in fairly good English) and helped me navigate the menu. When she wanted to describe her favorite dish – the daily special not on the menu – she dragged the sandwich board over and walked through what it was. Madagascar cuisine. Not particularly French (she also apologized for being a bad French and not having a French food as her favorite), but very hip nonetheless. And very tasty too.

Some things which must have been here but I didn’t notice. Like the North African market by my hotel. And all the other foreigners who are not here for vacation. The diversity of this city and this neighborhood is astounding with dozens of different cultures coming face to face. Lots of evidence of France’s colonial past and their hold over their former territories. Unlike the Spanish who tried to assimilate the cultures and genes. And unlike the English who tried to displace the native populations. France had a very laissez-faire attitude, preferring more of a partnership than a more heavy-handed rule.

Has it changed? Sure. There’s wifi, electric cars for rent by the hour, you pay in Euro instead of French Francs. But I don’t think I can get a good feeling for any changes that are deeper than that. My memory is too hazy and my observations too superficial with the time I have here. So sadly you’ll have to get that information from someone else.

And there are changes in myself. I’m less apt to visit a tourist site than just meander around. To practice cultural tourism at the street level – as it is now being defined, not how it was shaped in the past. I used to force myself to do the normal tourist route and try to see the famous sites and scenes, no matter how much they didn’t interest me. But I don’t any longer, for instance I didn’t see the Eiffel Tower or Champs Elysees this past trip.

And I don’t try as hard to act like a respectful tourist. Instead I’m just myself with deference to the unknown, like the language and mannerisms. Respecting the culture but not trying to eat it all at once like the proverbial elephant. And not as ready to assess an entire culture based on experiences from a limited exposure (despite my treatment in this post to try to categorize everything).

And I’ve learned to break myself of the habit of being too prepared. I used to pile everything I thought I might possibly use into my bag. But I quickly learned that made it impossibly large and heavy. For more on that, see my series on travel skills and packing tips.

But I do still love discovery and travel for its own sake. Meandering is something I used to space between doing what I thought I ought to do. My game was to get lost and then find myself when I got nervous. Now I don’t worry about nerves and just trust that I can either find my way or ask someone. Some of that has to do with the technology I travel with, but some of it is just confidence that everything will work itself out even if it takes a bit longer than I’m expecting. That attitude has served me well and gotten me to some great spots that most people never see or know about.

But there are changes that I don’t like. I’ve never thought twice about a several hour detour just to see something I wanted to. For me getting there really is the fun part. But those trips are much fewer and farther between now. That’s a shame because it’s almost as promising a prospect as it used to be. I just don’t make the opportunities like I used to. True, I travel a lot more now, but I’m not sure I’m not missing something here and there. Long road trips with good music and audiobooks used to be a favorite activity of mine. I miss those days, and maybe I can recapture the feeling of meaning and purpose some other way.

But what about the places I remember so fondly from my first time here? I’m sure you’re asking that question, as I was. I guess I was avoiding those places. I didn’t want to find that they were gone or that they weren’t the same. But even worse I didn’t want to find that they were the same but horrible, with my mind polishing them to a shine and setting them on the windowsill of my memory. For my last night in the city I went back to my old haunts.

Paris: A Rememberence

The first time I visited Paris was my first real trip abroad unchaperoned and fully in control of my own destiny. That journey helped start me on the path to who I am today. I have a lot of great memories of that trip. Now I’m back for a few days and I’ll try to find out what’s changed – both here and within myself – and rediscover my younger self in the process. This is part of a series of my reminiscences of Paris.

It’s December 31st, 1999 and a 22-year-old me stands in the Paris night watching the millennium count down on the Eiffel Tower. The crowd, standing together tightly enough that most are sweating despite the chill, bubbles in anticipation like champagne when shaken.  It hits 0…the year 2000 has dawned. The cork holding the crowd is released and a hundred thousand bodies jump, dance, scream, throw up their hands and complete the metaphor. A new year…century…millennium has dawned; a thousand years has ticked off the clock in a second.

Read the rest of this entry

My Worst Flight Ever?

I’m on the worst flight of my life. I have traveled a lot and am happy to report things have never been this bad. It’s exciting in a way! I shall report on my situation in excerpts from my mental travelogue. My hope is that either posterity will know what was my woeful fate or that we’ll all have a laugh together.

I had an inkling things might be not go so well when the majority of people at 6am were checking into last night’s 10:30 flight that had some delays. And on the board every flight since that one proudly called out that it had been delayed before it departed. Why display flights that are gone already, especially when they make you look bad? I dunno. But they did. Luckily mine checked in and started boarding on time. Well, on Armenian time which is to say nobody was in too big a rush to be punctual.

Some things are not the airline’s fault. I mean this Armenia, which is more European than Europe in its people’s befuddlement of the winged train-like object that makes the ground shrink and move underneath you. Using manners perfectly alright for train travel like getting up to walk around as the mechanized wonder is departing, so they can grab the stinky cheese and meat from the overhead, meanwhile the cart of apples spills down the aisle picking up nearly enough speed on the plane’s ascent to breach the back. Things that work on trains just don’t work on planes though. I’m half wondering if there haven’t been more than one confused European who tries to open the door at 30,000 feet to smoke or to find the restaurant car.

There is the old guy who’s never been on a plane next to me. He is testing everything to see if it does something and how it works. That includes the armrest, pulling it up, finding that it lifts and putting it down again before trying the one on the other side. Sure enough it lifts too. On to the tray table for a while then back to the armrests. I can only imagine his sense of wonder when yet again they lift.

Every drink or food tray that comes down the aisle he anticipates and times to make sure he will be served. Leaping towards the aisle to grab at whatever Precious resides within the steel contraption. He reserves the same zeal for darting toward the window to peer at the sea of clouds below.

Then there are your standard bad mannered airline folk on board as well. Like the prototypical screaming kid right behind me. He starts with “I’m MAFIA” and banging his tray table (my seat back) up and down. After a few minutes of this civilized behavior he gets bored and starts kicking the seat and yelling louder. Then his mother says something at him (not to him) in a loud tone enough times that he starts screaming, alternating between shrill bursts and wailing. Then he quiets himself briefly, talks calmly and starts again. The cycle is about 30 minutes long so it should be easy to time the flight.

And once again my arm is crammed into my shoulder before my elbow slides off. It’s more of a yanking upwards than I described above I guess. The way only old men who have done manual labor all their lives can manage. With strength that comes from sinews tightened from years of wrenching loose rusted bolts, plowing fields or maybe pulling locomotives. I don’t know, but the motion is spastic and strong.

But this strength and dexterity fail him when they hand the hot goupy tray on top of the slick box of food. This soon becomes a hot goupy lap full as you might imagine. Two laps full because he has shared his lunch with me. Now I can’t fully blame the old guy for this maneuver, I mean who puts a nuclear hot metal tray on top of a slick paper box and hands the whole contraption over a row of people in a sardine tray?

Armavia, that’s who. The national airline of Armenia would probably be the envy of the 1957 TWA with their modern jets, bulky stewardesses and ability to skillfully save space. Cram six seats in a space most airlines waste on five seats. So much room is wasted on the aisles on other airlines that the carts luxuriously parade up and down the plane, hardly banging anyone on the knee or elbow. Not so Armavia. And why pamper baggage with a regular size overhead compartment? I’m sure on a full flight all the bags will fit in sideways…oh nope I guess they didn’t. Delay while we put check some luggage, hopefully to reemerge either plane side or at the carousel at the destination. Their one luxurious row of first class is protected by a curtain that sits in the chair of a row of cattle class, making it unusable. And the announcement in French sounds like somebody held their phone up to the speaker during an air France announcement and recorded it.

So in my cramped seat I sit, wishing that the air vent worked. Listening to the sweet serenade of “I’m MAFIA” and commiserate with my seat which is taking punishment from as many sides as I am today. The aforementioned hot meal served was hardly a respite, with a date carved into the foil of a week ago exactly. I wasn’t sure if it was the date it was made, supposed to be served or when it would go bad. In any case it was an indicator that I should adopt my strategy of staying alive at third world restaurants and become a vegetarian. So I was able to eat one slice of cheese and one of cucumber, as well as the mint. The chocolate snack looked like the Baby Ruth bar in Caddyshack – slimy and turdlike so I avoided it and withheld my urge to yell “doody!”

Perhaps an ill choice of words. Not more than two hours after lunch it smells as if one of my nearest neighbors has shit himself. I’d blame the kid but he hasn’t let up in his game of trying to snap his tray off. Whereas the old man has gone very still all of a sudden.

Well it turns out to be the kid behind me. What I felt as the pulling on the tray was just his mother changing him on it. He didn’t quite fit – you know they don’t make those trays as big as they should to change your 2 year old. I was suddenly worried that my decision to even eat the cheese and cucumber might have been a bad one.

We circle the city for a while. This is always the worst. Like when the person just in front of you in line takes an interminable amount of time owing to some complaint or error on their part. Or worse over a small amount of money thy are trying to talk the cashier out of. We finally come to the ground and applause erupts as if Nadia Comaneci has just won the gold. Really, planes and pilots do this several times every day. Not once every four years. It’s not an amazing feat of heroism.

As soon as the cheers die down we pause briefly on the tarmac awaiting ground instructions. And we are nearly bounced back into the air by the force of the humanity jumping out of their seats. As per standard practice someone comes on the intercom – Armenian only, they know who it is jumping up. That does nothing except to make the standees talk louder to be heard. And a stewardess walks back as far as the first bunch, telling them to sit again. They look at her, dismiss her with a motion and she returns to her post. Their surprise is audible as the plane lurches forward again to continue to the terminal. Their faces seem to say “How rude to move the plane like that after you’ve stopped it. Don’t blame us if you parked so far away the first time.” The former hero captain now reduced to an idiot in their eyes.

And that is the end of my journey. I have lived again. And with story in hand I head to print it for all the world to read. And maybe to clap at my own feat of heroism and restraint.

Location Of The Mystery Trip (Part 3)

Atlanta Travels The WorldThis is part 3 in the series, where I speculate on where I might be going and tell you where I’d send me. Here are some things that I’ve learned in trying to figure out where I’ll be heading:

  • Did you know that the official language of Guyana is English and that it is more similar to the Caribbean than to South America?
  • Did you know that the three least known countries in the world are Tuvalu, Nauru and Kiribati? Nauru has a very interesting story. Kiribati is the only country in the world that spans all four hemispheres.
  • Did you know that this will be the 199th year of Oktoberfest in Munich? It will be held September 19 – October 4.
  • Did you know that the second largest Oktoberfest celebration in the world is in Blumenau, Brazil? And that the third largest is in Cordoba, Argentina?

I think that the most obvious place to send me during those dates is Oktoberfest in Munich. So obvious, in fact, that I doubt this will be it – or there will be an added element of surprise thrown in. Like “You fly into Munich and out of Prague. You are not allowed to take any form of motorized transportation during the three weeks.”

So where do I think I’m going? I think I’ll be flying into Venice, then following the Eastern coast of the Agean down to Greece and out of Athens. None of those countries require a visa and it would be a really cool trip. I put my odds of being right at about 15%.

Location Of The Mystery Trip (Part 2)

This is the second part on where I might be going on my Mystery Trip, wherein I let you know where other folks have suggested to send me and stop just short of revealing where I think I’m headed and why.

My boss said he’d send me to one of the following locations:
Kerguelen Islands
Canary Islands
A Finnish lake

I like the idea of Tajikistan. The mountainous region of Afghanistan and Pakistan – two of its neighbors – is someplace I’ve long wanted to go, and Tajikistan is 90% mountains. They also share a culture with Persia, another place I’d love to visit. The border with Afghanistan has been guarded by a modern army since at least 2001 and the country has ties with the World Trade Organization and NATO. I’d feel safe heading there, although I’d better get there quickly, according to Barnett.

A couple of my friends said they’d send me to Thailand. I like that idea, too. If nothing else I’m sure I could get some spectacular Tom Kha Gai soup. Though it will be the rainy season, that just means fewer tourists and cooler temperatures.

South America has been a popular suggestion. Specifically Peru and Argentina. I’d be alright with either of those. Machu Pichu looks incredibly beautiful and I’ve wanted to go to Buenos Aires for a long time.

Location Of The Mystery Trip (Part 1)

It’s now less than two weeks from my Mystery Trip and I have no more idea where I’m going than I did when I started this crazy idea. This is part one, in which I lay out what I know so far and stop just short of providing speculations on a location.

I’ve started working on the skills that I’ll use when I am wherever I am. I’m using an Asus eeepc 1005HA-B to type this up now. The screen glare is killing me. I’ve uploaded photos to Flickr and done some other basic tasks on here which will be required if I’m going to blog my trip.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s what I have been told so far:

I have been told that I have at least one mission planned.
The location will be North of the equator. (I suspect that this may be a red herring, since the real intent is so I don’t have to deal with Winter conditions where heavy clothing is essential to survival.)
I will be traveling Internationally.
I will not need to get a visa in advance.
I depart Saturday, September 19th and return Saturday October 10th.
I will be on a direct flight from Atlanta.
I need to travel light and carry boots.
I should have connectivity to the Internets available to me, though not at all times.

The Mission

“You will receive a package,” came across the phone thickly accented. The voice was too familiar to mistake. It was the Philadelphian. I knew what this was about.

“Inside the package there is an envelope. You will not open the envelope until you are on the plane.” And then the part I knew was coming. “It is your mission.” This was about my trip….

Ticket To Somewhere

See more posts in the Mystery Trip saga!

I am going on vacation September 19-October 11. I just don’t know where. It’s not that I haven’t decided, I’ve got a plane ticket already. I will be informed of my destination when I get to the airport to get on the plane!

I’ve been thinking about this type of trip for a couple of months now and finally decided to go ahead with it. I asked Brian to find me someplace to go for 3 weeks, with the following rules of engagement:

  • I won’t know where I’m going until the day I leave.
  • Nothing booked in advanced except the departure and return flights.
  • I can carry one bag plus the clothes I’m wearing.
  • I’m going to blog the whole trip.

He booked me a ticket and gave me some guidance.
What you need:

  • Backpack
  • Boots
  • Clean undies
  • A good attitude
  • Camera

What you cant bring:

  • Rollerbag
  • A lot of stuff.. you need to travel light

So where in the world am I headed? I haven’t got a clue but it sounds like it’ll be an awesome trip!

Eastern Iowa and the Quad Cities

So this morning I was scheduled to fly out of Cedar Rapids airport (CID), also known as The Eastern Iowa Airport. I never got one of the friendly Delta reminders to check in online 24 hours before my flight, but that was no big deal. I knew I was supposed to do it anyway. So I hopped on my iPhone and Cedar Rapids’ new 3G network (not scheduled to go into service until Dec. 1, but they got it up and running while I was in town – probably just for me) and tried to check in, but there was some kind of error with checking in online. Not a problem, I thought to myself, I’ll just do it at the airport.

Let me tell you a bit about CID. They have flights to thirteen cities, total. It’s a small little place, especially compared to Hartsfield. The Delta affiliate, ComAir, operates three to five flights a day – the last of these on Saturday is at 9am to Cincinnati. That’s the flight I was scheduled to be on. That’s the flight I showed up 29 minutes prior to. That’s the flight I missed this morning because nobody was at the ticket counter to check me in. I didn’t know this, but in smaller airports, there is apparently one person to work the check-in counter and to take tickets going onto the plane. Brent was that one person today. He also informed us that he’s the supervisor for both the ComAir and the United counters. That’s an odd mix since the two airlines aren’t exactly cordial towards each other.

I wasn’t the only person left out. A lady I’ll call Karen (because that’s her name) was standing there trying to find someone to help her when I went to use the kiosk. She was looking around for anyone to help her get to her flight, which was also my flight. So I knew I was screwed as I went through the kiosk menus anyway. Sure enough, the kiosk directed me to ask someone at the ticket counter for help. Since it’s physically impossible to be in two places at once, that one person has to leave the ticketing counter just a bit before he makes the call to start boarding the plane. So that’s why Brent wasn’t at the counter to help us. It isn’t his fault, it’s a flawed system.

So there we were, Karen and I, desperately looking for someone to help us. We heard Brent calling us over the intercom system and could do very little. I called Delta corporate and they had no power to do anything since they can’t communicate with the airport. I tried using the ticketing counter phone to call the gate and to use the intercom system, but being a modern phone it was all but impossible to use without a week of training. I felt like one of those people in the theater who yell at the people on the screen: I had no power to effect change but I was compelled to yell nonetheless.

Karen and I missed our flight. Brent came back to the counter. I’d like to say we were entirely civil in our tone. I’d like to say that I wasn’t shooting daggers from my eyes. But I’d also like to say that he was perfectly cordial and did everything in his power to help us. He admitted that he had the power to override the charges for changing our flights but that he wouldn’t. Rather than tell us that the system had failed us all, he stood by the party line. He and it will probably win an award.

For Karen and myself, our best option was to rent a car and drive to Moline‘s Quad Cities Airport and pay the airline change fees. So I went back to the Hertz counter and got a car at a discounted rate on account of our hardship (thanks Hertz counter guy!). We set out with directions from my iPhone and a map, as well as instructions from Brent – he’d become really sweet when he let go of a little stress from the boarding process.

Karen and I set out on our trip to Moline from Cedar Rapids. 100 miles of driving with a complete stranger who just happened to step in the same pile I did. But Karen had the same quirky sense of adventure I had and we got along really well. Along the way, she pointed out to me the Herbert Hoover Library and the World’s Largest Truck Stop. Following Brent’s directions got us slightly lost (FYI, Brent, coming from the west the sign labeled I-74 to Peoria takes you along I-80 until you’re past the airport) but it was nothing that our sense of adventure couldn’t handle. We also passed Rock Island, which Karen thought was a prison colony but it turns out to be the third most polite place in the country (though New York City is ranked number 1).

So the story ends at the MLI airport. We both made the flight. Karen went off the New York to meet her family for the holidays and I made it back to Atlanta. All-in-all I’d say it’s worth the extra $200 for the trip. If nothing else I got a good story to tell and got to know a good person. And isn’t that what life is all about? If it’s not then I’m living it wrong.