Monday, January 16, 2012

The Baksheesh, the Hacking and the Hectic Weekends

There are two things that are driving me insane in Bangladesh. The first is the Baksheesh. We call it “tipping” in the Western world, but it is so much more than that. Baksheesh is a way of life, a matter of pride, a beautiful (or frustrating) end of a task. Baksheesh follows no rules and depends on social status and the moment. May I say that I HATE Baksheesh?! Baksheesh permeates every single sphere, nook and cranny of Bangladeshi life. Examples:

1.       We arrive at the Dhaka airport, giddy with excitement on our way to Thailand. Right before going inside to check in, we are stopped by a couple of uniformed policemen who politely direct us to pick up two departure forms from a standalone kiosk, which reads, “Passenger help.” Which we do. And then the guys at the kiosk ask us to pay baksheesh. Confused, we pay the 100 taka (say, $1.50) , pick up the forms and go inside. 5 minutes later, at the check-in counter, the Bangkok Air crew happily hands us the same forms, perfectly free. @#$%???

2.       I hire a rickshaw wallah to transport a bunch of really large plants from a friend’s house (the friend is moving and our rooftop can use the extra foliage). We bargain and I decide to hire two wallahs given the amount of huge plants. When he arrives at the apartment, however, he decides that he can take on all flowerpots and we agree to pay him the price for two wallahs as originally agreed. Sometime later, he finally makes is back to my building. Along with my driver, he spends some time bringing the plants to the roof. Finally finished, he just stands there, looking at me quizzically. You’d think that when I bargained the original price, it included the lifting and all. Apparently not. I gave him 300. He pointed out that one of the flowerpots was empty when he picked it up and he planted an entire plant there for us for free (why he would do that remains a mystery to me). Even though the extra plant appeared to be free, it also appeared that the wallah was waiting for some more baksheesh. With grim resign, I pull out more money from my wallet.

3.       I bought a treadmill this past weekend (YES, oh YES – and I even ran on it for like 10 minutes already!!). We bargained hard and the owner of the store proudly told me delivery would be free. I was won over and bought the contraption. Delivery would be the same day. Several hours later, the treadmill arrived, carried up the stairs (not sure why, we have an elevator) by two burly guys. They gingerly carried it inside the apartment (again, not sure why, it has wheels which I did point out to them) and then stood there, in the middle of my bedroom, not moving. I motioned them to come outside, into the corridor, which they reluctantly did. We stood there, staring at each other for some time, and then one of them flat out asked me for baksheesh. I sighed deeply (I only had large notes), went to my wallet and pulled out the money. Their eyes lit up (whoever had heard of giving back change for a tip), they snatched the cash and literally ran out of the apartment lest I find a smaller bill.

So, yes, I HATE baksheesh. It is not so much the money itself. It is the constant expectation and bother of it – at the market, when the little boys pester you forever to carry your groceries; at the street intersection, where the street guard won’t let your rickshaw cross the road into the diplomatic zone (“rules, madam!”) unless you give baksheesh; at every single parking lot, where inevitably some loiterer will “help” you to park (which actually translates into him banging on the hood of the car repeatedly, not clear what that means really); leaving a supermarket, surrounded by an endless sea of small children, screaming for baksheesh. Which is why one always has to carry small change here.

My second biggest pet peeve here is what seems to be Bangladeshi men’s favorite pass time – hacking loudly and then spitting with gusto on the ground. Words cannot describe how disgusting it is. The sounds of it happening fill the air of Dhaka any time of the day. Just when you thought the entire huge restless city is finally asleep at 1 am, and you have rested your weary head on the pillow, enjoying the quiet night, one sounds suddenly rips through the peace – the guard downstairs gives it his best and hacks and spits like he is competing in the Olympics.

In other news, our lives remain impossibly hectic. Every single weekend, the Diplomat and I decide solemnly that THIS weekend, we will relax and just hang around. And then we plunge into a wild mix of shopping, errands, friends, dinners, travel, tennis and by the time Saturday night rolls in, we are more exhausted than ever. This one was worse, since it was a three-day weekend. I have been sick for some days now with Dhakaitis (a flu-like malaise with no particular name or reason, which is weakening and painful and refuses to go away), and so I truly needed to relax. Therefore, on Friday morning, without fail and true to form, I dragged the Diplomat and Son out of home and took them to the fresh market, the meat market, the supermarket, the shoe store and who knows what else. After a brief nap in which we all partook, we went to the American Club to play a round of tennis and meet a couple of good friends for a brief chat. The tennis round went for over an hour, and the brief chat turned into several drinks with some appetizers. By the time we made it home, it was already 7.30pm. We tossed the exhausted Son into bed, and once the nanny came to babysit, went out on a date to a great Indian restaurant. At 11 pm, one goat biryani and a bottle of red wine later, utterly exhausted, we dragged ourselves home and swore to take it easy on Saturday.
Which is why we got up early the next morning (not that Son left us any other option) and immediately went downtown to buy me a treadmill. The negotiations made me feel really hungry, and in anticipation of the hundreds of burned calories, I decided to stop by for lunch at Pizza Hut, one of the very few American chain restaurants in town. The pizza was outstanding! The remainder of the afternoon was spent pottering about, and then I left to play tennis and have dinner and drinks with my tennis partners. Not sure what and how it happened, but I got home at almost 11pm. The hectic weekend finally caught up with me, and I spent half of Martin Luther King’s day sleeping – since Son’s daycare does not celebrate the holiday, he had to go to school, while mommy slept till 11 am, went for lunch to a friend’s house and came back for a few hours of manicure/pedicure/massage/hot oil hair mask. The evening was topped by an excellent dinner at the International Club of Dhaka.
Next weekend however – utter relaxation!!!!


  1. The baksheesh thing would totally drive me crazy. We had some of it in Latin America, but I know it was nothing like Bangladesh. Hope you get a vacation on a baksheesh-free island eventually!

  2. i won't ask you for baksheesh for reading the blog, u can be sure on that! it is quite normal, and even in US i had paid when i am observed by the service providers as an alien!in america u do not get any labor to do these jobs whereas in emerging economies plenty of such help is available,therefore enjoy and pay!

  3. Yikes! I know exactly how you feel about the baksheesh. Its so frustrating when it feels like all people ever want from you is money. Here's hoping that the good encounters outnumber the bad and that you never lose your sense of humor about it. :)

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  5. Baksheesh ruins the Middle East and South Asia. I'm in Egypt and the people are actually nice and love America here (rare nowadays), but after a while you can't help but start hating them for being sycophantic and endlessly trying to extract more and more baksheesh out of you. It's non-sexual prostitution.

    The people in Cairo aren't really that different-looking than people in Mediterranean Europe, which makes the baksheesh culture all the more obvious. I remember how relieved I was when I first moved to Europe from the United States and found out you don't really have to leave much of a tip (or any tip) at European restaurants.

    Baksheesh is corruption.

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  7. Here in Rio, you should know that tipping is de regeur for parking on the street. Each street has a fellow who run after you when you try to park your car, and grunts various sounds in an attempt to let you think he is helping. Everyone pays a R$2 note or so (about 90 cents). I used to hate it, but then I noticed how these fellows also care for the street, cleaning, sweeping and clearing the gutters after a rain. I understand that "my money" is just in transition. I am thankful that, for today at least, I can pay baksheesh!