For India's rickshaw drivers, English pays off

Known for his English-speaking skills, Sheikh Musharaf is the go-to driver for editors at top American fashion magazines.

Kai Ryssdal: We're told all the time that we're in a knowledge-based economy in this country. That as manufacturing and industry move overseas, it's brainpower that's going to make us money.

But knowledge is kind of a fungible thing. It can be figuring out the next must-have app or cool new startup. Or, in a different kind of economy, it can be more basic. Like just knowing what your customers want.

From Rajisthan in northern India, Mara Zepeda has the story of an English-speaking rickshaw driver.

Mara Zepeda: Thirty-year-old Sheikh Musharaf has a talent for accents. During our ride together, I ask him to say the phrase, 'Where do you want to go?'

Musharaf: In English, like "Where do you want to go?" In America, "Where do you want to go?" In Australia, "Hey mate, what's up, what do you like to do today?"

You can blame globalization for Musharaf's talent. It all came about because his father, a hand embroiderer, lost a lot of his work to China with their lightning-fast embroidery machines.

Musharaf: I had a conversation with my father, he said, 'I can't earn enough money to send your brother and your sister to the school, you know?' I said OK. And I'm really interested to work with the tourists from the beginning because they're nice, and also if I give good service, I get good money.

Musharaf noticed the drivers who knew English were raking it in.

Musharaf: I realized to know more English so I can tell them more story about the palaces, about the temple, about the culture and everything so I can make more better money!

So he taught himself the language.

Musharaf: So when I finished my job, when I used to walk home, I started to repeat the same word like 10 times, you know? So that's how I learned. And said, 'Where do you want to go?' and 'What would you like to see?' and everything.

Musharaf used to make $4 a day; now he can make as much as $20. He's the go-to driver for editors at top American fashion magazines. In his glove box, there's a book of testimonials and business cards from professionals around the world. One impressed tourist gave him $1,000 so he could buy his own rickshaw. Then, Musharaf started teaching other drivers English, and their profits doubled as a result. Of course, he has to be selective.

Musharaf: And everyone comes and tells me 'Hey, teach me some English!' and all that. I say 'No.' I don't teach them anymore. They'll take my business away!

From Jaipur, India, I'm Mara Zepeda for Marketplace.

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Are you sure you weren't just being conned, Mara? I traveled around India for two months, and never met a tuk tuk driver who didn't speak English. In fact, with thirteen official languages in India, English is their second language. You can count on English in India, and on being conned--- every single day. Five U.S. dollars is about right for a driver FOR THE WHOLE DAY ('96). Get at least three estimates and talk to the local tourists. That's my advice. Great country to visit, and good people, in general; but theirs is a very different culture and conning is a game. If they can find tourists who believe that they're getting something extra, they'll charge extra, and that's fair. If they can get you out of your train seat by telling you you have the wrong ticket; that's fair (they typically ride for free for as long as they can). If they can get you into a tuk tuk by telling you the place you're looking for is closed; that's fair. If they can get you to pay three times the going rate for a local tourist trip you could have arranged at your hotel or the government tourist office; that's fair. Rule number one for both travelers in foreign countries and reporters: Do your own research.

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