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Relative Affluence

Sanjib Saha

WHEN RESTRICTIONS ON travel eased this year, I visited Kolkata, India, where I grew up and my mother still lives. The airline ticket and other travel costs were almost 75% higher than my last visit four years ago.

This year, I’ve grown used to price shocks at every turn, from groceries to gas, so the steep ticket price didn’t shock me. What did surprise me was my feeling of affluence once I arrived.

Traveling to a low-cost country as a tourist doesn’t necessarily feel like a bargain because most items still have an international price tag. But living like a local is another matter. Everything seems dirt cheap to folks from high-income countries. Curious to know how far my U.S.-earned dollars went during my stay in India? Consider:

A dime would get me a freshly made hot tea from a roadside tea stall, served in a disposable earthen cup. For a nickel more, most sellers would upgrade it to a masala chai—milk tea flavored with ginger, cardamon and other aromatic spices.

A quarter paid for the return bus ticket to my aunt’s place four miles away. What else could I buy for a quarter? How about a recently picked large guava to savor with rock salt, or a bag of fresh flowers that my mother needed for her morning offerings to the gods?

A half-dollar would buy a hearty Bengali breakfast dish from an outdoor eatery, if you didn’t mind waiting while the cook prepares it right in front of you. The food would typically be served on a Sal leaf plate, to be trashed afterward in a designated bin.

A dollar for a man’s haircut might sound like a promotional offer, but that’s the regular price in the neighborhood salon—and it wasn’t due to the thinning hair of its regular customers. The small shop not only had the needed hygiene standards, leather seats and air-conditioning, but also offered nice add-ons, like a 30-minute head and shoulder massage for one dollar more.

Two dollars was the cost of my cab ride from the Kolkata airport to our house five miles away. As soon as I walked out of the arrival gate, a few touts approached me to offer a no-wait, luxurious ride. I declined and waited in the queue for pre-paid cabs. Fifteen minutes later, I got a cab assigned to me, helped the driver to load my bags and was on my way.

Five dollars covered the electrician’s labor for two visits to our house to take care of a few things for my mother. The work didn’t take long but, as a courtesy to my mother, he also bought the necessary fixtures from our neighborhood electrical store.

Ten dollars may not seem like a lot, but it was enough for a trained masseuse to come over and help me with my sore calf muscles and feet. The massage lasted about an hour, not including a brief break for tea and light snacks that my mother made for him.

Fifteen dollars was the cost to take my mother for a sumptuous lunch at a trendy restaurant on Park Street, the Fifth Avenue of Kolkata. The fresh green coconut water added another dollar to the restaurant bill. The experience and service were well worth the hefty tip we left.

Twenty dollars got me an all-day ride in a private, chauffeur-driven compact car. We started in the morning to visit a few places within a 25-mile radius and returned in the evening. I could’ve used a ride-hailing service instead, but the neighborhood operator seemed more friendly and convenient.

Twenty-five dollars covered both the labor and materials for a long-overdue plumbing overhaul of the main bathroom. The plumber replaced the leaking pipes, ran a new water connection to improve the flow and installed a new showerhead. He took two days to complete the work, and it was immaculate.

One hundred dollars connected our home with high-speed broadband internet for a year. I tested to check if the connection lived up to the advertised speed of 100 Mbps. It outperformed.

One thousand dollars covered the cost of new Bosch appliances I bought for my mother and sister-in-law. These included an energy-efficient refrigerator, an automatic front-loading washing machine and a high-powered kitchen chimney. The cost, which included delivery and installation, was lower than I expected thanks to the seasonal discount for the Diwali festivals.

My feeling of affluence was shattered as soon as I was on my way back to the U.S. A cup of tea purchased past the security checkpoints at Kolkata airport cost $3. Thirty hours and 9,000 miles later, I was home, catching up with my wife after being away for a month. That was a moment worth $1 million.

Sanjib Saha is a software engineer by profession, but he’s now transitioning to early retirement. Self-taught in investments, he passed the Series 65 licensing exam as a non-industry candidate. Sanjib is passionate about raising financial literacy and enjoys helping others with their finances. Check out his earlier articles.

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