Zen and the art of bartering

14 Mar

Two small porcelain trays have caught my eye. Their rectangular bases and shallow curving sides are painted delicately; Cham patterns in muted greys. Now the fun begins.

“How much?”

The girl smiles.

“Sixty thousand dong each.”

I look thoughtful.

“Forty thousand for the two.”

She looks suitably horrified. The older woman squatting on the floor glances up and smiles.

“Eighty thousand for two”, the girl counters.

The furrows on my brow deepen.

“Well, I don’t know … maybe I’ll come back tomorrow.”

I make as if to go outside: a tried and tested move so long as you don’t do it in an aggressive or insulting way. Face matters a great deal here.

“No – you no come back tomorrow!”

I pause. Wait for her next offer.

“Sixty thousand for two”

A quid each.

“I give you fifty thousand.”

I hold up a taut right palm, five digits stretched upward; throw a beaming smile. She volleys back but hers is bigger and beamier.

Sixty thousand.”

Again I make as if to get on my bike but I’m not serious. We’re thirty pence apart. She knows she has the sale and at a good price, though not the killing she may have hoped for.

In the end it’s fifty-five. I hand over five thousand in one-ks then a hundred-k note. As she gives me a fifty in return she spies the five-k note, crumpled and blue, in my wallet.

“You give me five thousand.”

Another sixteen pence. Outrageous!

“We said fifty-five

I hold the severe look a moment then crack a grin as I slam the note into her palm. Both women burst out laughing at my theatrics. We’ve all played the game in the right spirit and their smiles from the doorway, as I get back on my bike, would have been worth twice their starting price.

Not that that is ever a good idea, mind. When farangs pay the first price asked they not only look fools but wreak havoc on the local economy. My Ethiopian friend Sisay once made the point succinctly. “Last year I was paying ten birr a kilo for bananas. Now the shop keeper won’t sell them to me. She knows she can get twenty from the faranjis.”

As always there’s a balance to be struck. (I’m a Libran, see – not that we Librans believe in astrol­ogy, you understand.) At the other end of the spectrum you see farangs apopletic at being ‘ripped off’ for an amount any sane onlooker would consider a reasonable ‘tourist tax’; an amount, more­over, that would buy zilch back home. It’s embarrassing to watch, but can get a lot worse than embarrassing.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia: my first visit to South East Asia. It was near sundown when a woman working one of the gates sold me a pair of peasant pants: thin black cotton jobs with ties at the back you pull round the front to fasten in a bow; their baggy, one-size-fits-all construction abso the ticketo for the heat and humidity.

She’d wanted five dollars. (In 2009 the Cambodian currency was and for all I know still is on its knees.) I went in hard on two erroneous assumptions. The first, a product of my visits to India, was that the start price would be many times the ‘fair’ price. I’ve since learned that a ratio of two to one is a fairly reliable guide in these parts.

My second miscalculation was the neoliberal, “pure market discipline” assumption that if the price went too low she simply wouldn’t sell.

I got the pants for a buck. Pleased as punch I showed them to my Angkor guide, a sweet and highly intelligent young man.

“Good price, no?”

He agreed. It was indeed a good price. But …

“She will have paid a dollar herself in the market at Siem Reap.”

The woman was nowhere to be seen. I had no way of putting right my boorish error. Some­times traders sell at a loss just because they need the liquidity. It’s one thing if you’re a win-some-lose-some wheeler dealer of the Arthur Daley/Del Boy school. And another entirely when you’re struggling to hold body and soul together in one of the poorest nations on the planet; one, moreover, still living with the fallout of its recent, nightmare past.

I guess you live and learn. All the while knowing you will never know; not really.

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