The Art of Haggling

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Monday, November 26, 2007

"Halo, darling! I want to braid your hair..."
"Darling, beautiful nails! Let me paint them!"
"Come in, come in! Very cheap. I give you good price."
They hang around in doorways and crouch on sidewalks, smoking languidly, eyes hardened with desperation, enticing, cajoling, begging for business.
Like huge white balloons floating in the midst of hungry cats with claws, overplump Australian tourists walked the gauntlet, waddling from shop to shop, indifferent to the hawkers' aggressive pleas. 
But one such tourist, with a shocking blonde mullet and a sunburn so red it had to hurt, had finally had enough.

"Naw, mate! Don't want any!"  
"But I give you good price!"
"I said NAW!"
Hawkers can be annoying, especially so in Bali, where the tourist trade has made a comeback since the two bombings in Kuta several years ago. While tourists stay away from the rest of Indonesia in droves, Bali is still crawling with them. It makes no sense really-Bali is a major terrorist target precisely because of its high western population. In Kuta, every sidewalk and alleyway in Poppys I and II is filled with pink-skinned, blonde-haired tourists, mainly Australian, Swiss and German, looking for a good time. The atmosphere is taut with hedonistic energy as they sift through bars and restaurants in hordes, filling barstools with bottoms and beaches with surfboards, beach umbrellas and the scent of suntan lotion.

The hawkers are looking for a piece of the action. Despite the hordes, tourist numbers are still down, which only makes them hungrier. It can be even more intimidating as a single girl to negotiate through them alone on the street. It takes a combination of understanding and street smarts to deal with what can feel like harassment.
It helps to remember that, in the big scheme of things, western tourists, even budget travellers like me, are rich and the locals are poor in comparison. It makes for an uneasy co-existence. You have the money to get here; they can't afford to leave, even for a holiday somewhere else in their own country. The majority of hawkers have to make the hard sell. Their livelihoods depend on it. Many have large families at home and lots of mouths to feed; they couldn't hope to buy half the things they're selling.
Then again, some like to trot out a sob story to tug at your heartstrings so you'll buy. I imagine the truth falls somewhere between-desperation used as a sales tactic. One lady told me, as I considered a coconut carved with butterflies, "Please. No tourists. We sell nothing all day. I give you good price for good luck."

It reminded me of my friend Rahmah's advice. She's a veteran bargainer. I've seen her and Dee in action in the markets of Medan-they showed me the ropes in Pasar Petisah. Rahmah says the first customer is always considered good luck. It's called buka dasar. If you go to the market first thing in the morning, when the shop opens, you'll get the best deal. Unfortunately this woman hadn't had a customer all day.
If a hawker gets too pushy, the best thing to do is simply ignore it, or better yet say a courteous "tidak mau, terimah kasih," which usually gets a more respectful response (ie, they smile and leave you alone). If you want to buy something, bargain in a firm but friendly manner, the Indonesian way. 
Haggling is an art. The price may start ridiculously high because a hawker is counting on your ignorance as a tourist. But if you have shopped around a bit and know your prices, and you act in a reasonable manner, you can talk it down to minimally higher than what a local would pay (because a local will always get the best deal). If it's still too high, walk away-they may call after you to take the price down. And if they don't you can always come back later if you really want that miniature surfboard with a sunset painted on it.
It doesn't help to get standoffish, as I've seen some tourists do. If a westerner gets bent out of shape, an Indonesian will stand back and watch with a bemused expression, feeling sorry for the poor brute because he doesn't know how to control himself. Indonesians do not get angry, because to do so means losing face. And to lose face is to lose respect.
However, it is okay to pretend to be angry, as Dee showed me in Pasar Petisah, where a ridiculous price over a pair of sunglasses was met with an exaggerated "Eesh!" before she haggled the price down. It's okay to be a feisty bargainer. Just watch an Indonesian woman go at it-she's a pro.  
To gain respect, and therefore a better deal, it also helps to know the language, or at least try it with phrasebook in hand. (I've since found that I managed to get much lower prices than I had at first thought.) Local shopkeepers have been quite taken aback when I reply in bahasa Indonesia. They've told me that most tourists don't know the language, even if they've been here several times (Bali is the cheap holiday spot for Ozzies). Tourists with that kind of western-style arrogance can expect to be ripped off.  
Several shopkeepers told me that Canadians are very good Indonesian speakers. For one thing, Canadians have a neutral accent that is easier to understand. My students have told me that. Perhaps we are also more open to cultural influences than people from other countries who keep mainly to themselves and don't allow a place to change them. They wrap themselves firmly in their own culture as if it were a security blanket. Canadians tend to be the more adventurous type; we don't want to conquer a country with itineraries in hand, but to take our time, mix and absorb the real flavours of a place.
At least that's how I feel. I want to break away from the crowd and talk to people who live here. This is your country. Show me what it's like.
One of the best ways to learn about a country and its people is to hit the traditional markets. Go fearlessly, with a willingness to speak the local language and learn about the products and people who sell them. It also takes patience. Indonesians like to chat, and it takes time to get the deal. Nothing moves as quickly as in the west. And why should it? What's the rush, anyway? Go too fast and you miss out o on all the interesting little intricacies of life.
In one case, when I was browsing handmade batik wall hangings, I talked to an old woman and her daughter in the shop for an hour. She showed me step by step how the batik is made by hand. I learned about her family of six children. And I left the shop with a beautiful red batik at a good price, with a story attached to it. The gift I will send to my brother for Christmas has new meaning. When I return to Canada and see it again, I will remember the appreciation of the old woman and her daughter as I spent time talking to them and learning about their craft.
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