October 30, 2014

Something We Didn’t Bargain For—trading with locals

I have to admit from the outset; I’m terrible at bargaining. I’m pretty sure people see me coming and clap their hands in glee—they just know they’re going to come out on the better side of the bargain. We also don’t tend to barter with ‘stuff’ that often. Usually we use cash—knowing that local people, especially in subsistence villages, really need money in hand to in order to buy essentials.

There are still times we will barter, but the items we carry to trade with are pretty carefully selected. Basically we don’t stock up on stuff we wouldn’t use ourselves—so no cigarettes and Playboys or junky plastic stuff (and no balloons for kids!). What we try to carry are things we know are hard to come by and can improve life a little, but don’t harm the local environment: so old swim masks or goggles, hats, sunglasses, binoculars, reusable water bottles, used clothes, fishing gear, flashlights, tools and school supplies.
kids are adorable and quickly learn to ask for money and stuff  

when possible we encourage a simple trade-in this case it was coconuts for hats
Most of what we have aboard for trade are things we’ve ended up with either from tradeshows, work trips, other boats, or are items that we’ve replaced with new gear. Having the stuff aboard doesn’t mean it’s always easy to know when to pull it out though.

Typically we wait for people to ask us for things before we suggest a trade—this way we know we’re offering up something they can use. So far in Indonesia the most coveted item is a swim mask to help with spear fishing. While we’ve seen some very clever handmade swim goggles—they don’t look comfortable.

If we are going to  give--it's typically to a school. We brought in a load of books and supplies to a school in Fiji
Aboard the boat rather than giving gifts we bring out paper and coloured pencils
Today we ended up trading away two swim masks. One of them by accident. Through a series of acquisitions we’ve somehow ended up with seven SPARE masks. Spares are important—we’ll use them if ours leak, or lend them to guests. But seven is a lot.

Yesterday when we had about 15 guests aboard one fellow asked if we had a mask to spare. Not wanting to display all our stuff with people around we shrugged off the question, but this morning I pulled out a mask and decided we needed hunt down the fellow who asked after it. Through a consensus we sort of recalled his name might be Paulus.

Midway through my morning coffee I saw a prau that looked like Paulus’ blue boat so I waved it over, mask in hand. As it drifted closer I realized neither occupant was Paulus. Actually one of them was Paulus, just not our Paulus (who may or may not be Paulus…) Paulus who wasn’t Paulus wanted the mask though—but all he had to trade was bananas.

Bananas are nice, and I don’t drive a very hard bargain, in fact I have to try really hard not to give stuff away. Giving stuff away (except for in dire situations where the need is great and the ability to trade doesn’t exist—like the fisherman without fish who showed up in his dissolving-around-him swimsuit and asked for shorts) is a bit of a no-no. Everyone needs dignity and when one boat starts giving things away it changes the dynamic from equals, or host and visitor, to beggar and giver.
So if all you have to trade is a hand of bananas—we’re going to find something of value to offer in exchange. A swim mask wasn’t the thing though—that’s worth a whole stalk of bananas. So we offered banana Paulus a t-shirt (which he accepted happily) and headed to shore to find other Paulus.

Once we were on shore we found everyone but Paulus. Evan chatted with the boat builder and I went to hang out with the ladies who were headed to market. One of the ladies called me over and started pointing at my eyes and making glasses symbols. At first I thought she was after reading glasses or sunglasses but then she mimicked swimming. With no Paulus in sight, and the need to get going starting to press, I called Evan over to show the lady the mask.

Mistake. Always start the bargaining process before handing something over. My error led the lovely lady to thinking I’d given her the mask. Which made her dance. And then all her friends clapped. She bubbled with happy. Evan suggested I try to get the mask back, or bargain for something, but there was no way I was wrecking her windfall and all she seemed to have for the market were two little pigs….

So right then Paulus showed up (positive that’s not his name). He saw the mask and his face fell. So we decided to try again—Evan went back to the boat for another mask. We made it clear we wanted 24 eggs for the mask. A thrilled Paulus walked us a kilometre straight up hill to the village to collect the eggs. But when he happily delivered us to the store we realized our trade had gone wrong again. The store wanted money for eggs. Paulus wanted the mask for delivering us to the store. We had no money. We wanted eggs.

In the end we sold the mask to the store for a dozen eggs—we negotiated for 24 eggs, but I wanted Paulus to be able to buy it for a price he could manage. And taking 24 eggs would have cleared out the store’s entire stock—we couldn’t do that. So we left a dozen eggs on the table.

We have to hope that Paulus got the mask in the end—all we know is he stayed behind to bargain for it with the store.


Doug and Carla Scott said...

Know your bargaining skills will improve with practice!

Mary Grace said...

Oh, this sounds challenging to me! I am sure I would rather give things away, but I understand the need to retain the balance by trading. Another something to add to my very long list of things I need to learn for my future sailing. Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

Diane, Evan, Maia and Charlie the cat said...

Thanks for commenting, Mary Grace. It is really hard. We had a father with his three little kids come by and ask for things this morning--there was a bare poverty need, and we gave them clothes for the kids and a bit of fishing gear he needed but when he asked for more we told him we'd like to trade for fruit. He showed up with two big stalks of bananas and water apples: we kitted him out with more clothing, sunglasses, sugar and other things they needed and he left laughing and far less sheepish than he arrived.