The Bargaining Game

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January 16th 2017
Published: January 16th 2017
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Bargaining used to be fun. When I was studying in Ecuador in 2008, regeteando (bargaining) for jeans at the market was one of my favourite ways to practice my Spanish. It was an actual interaction, conversation and communication with a local. It was just the way to do things, and we both got something out of it.

At some point between now and 9 years ago, the world changed. Tourism grew all over the place and the destinations had to adapt. Orion mentioned something he read the other day about Eat, Pray, Love "ruining" Bali. After it became a hit novel and movie, the tourists started flocking in and the tiny island started to change to accommodate them. Sure, it's nice for the economy to have more people (with more money) coming through, but it changes things and puts a lot of strain on locals. People start earning their money in different ways ranging from selling souvenirs to opening a western food restaurant to standing in the street with a baby begging for money. In Kuta and Ubud there are seemingly more taxi drivers than tourists, all of them vying for your business every few feet or so. Desperation runs the game and sadness hangs heavy.

The shops that line the streets all sell duplicates of the same things, some artfully crafted and some souvenir crap. Prices change based on the location of the shop and how the items are displayed, and of course by who you're talking to. The wood working is abundant as though it were mass produced by a machine, but was surely painstakingly carved by hand. Yet, I don't want to by any of it because the interaction of the sale is so stressful and painful.

Somewhere along the line, the bargaining game has become a play of desperation and deception, guilty players on both sides. Dishonest starting prices are met by budgets that fall lower and lower to take advantage of the offer. We all argue over values that amount to $1-5 because we can't tell what it's truly worth. If she says it's 60 and you say it's 200, where can I start?

Then there's the di$crimination based on my white skin and American passport. In every conversation the seemingly friendly question "where are you from?" comes up so they can determine what you can afford. What would it cost if my skin weren't white? If I spoke your language? How would I value it if I weren't comparing your country to another?

In the USA, we at least know for certain that most things are unfairly marked up. We can rest easier in our bitterness knowing there's not much we can do unless we harvest the raw materials and find the time and skill to make it ourselves. Sales are always such a monster, but I prefer to do my comparison shopping from behind a computer screen without faces in front of me begging for my business.

It's so uncomfortable for everyone and I can't help but feel guilty knowing that it's tourists like myself who have created this game...


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