Haggling’s my bread and barter
BARGAINING is an essential skill for travellers. I like to know the local price before I start, but often one has to fish. I don’t mind paying a tourist premium but no one likes to be ripped off.
In Kathmandu I have been buying fruit daily from a young man who has set up his barrow in a vacant space.
‘‘ How much for this bunch of bananas?’’ ‘‘ Eighty rupees.’’ ‘‘ Get away with you. Forty . . .’’ ‘‘ Sixty.’’ ‘‘ Fifty.’’ ‘‘ OK, 50.’’ When I have given him the money and have the fruit in hand I ask, ‘‘ What’s the Nepali price, 30 rupees?’’
‘‘ Forty,’’ he replies. ‘‘ You are a very clever man.’’
You need to know the value of the currency. I work out what I would be prepared to pay, then bargain in the local money.
Sometimes, however, you can find you are haggling over a few cents.
On the northern side of Bali, away from the tourist haunts, I bargain aggressively over a sarong and when the man accepts my considerably reduced offer, his wife shoots him a look that makes me realise how much it means to them. You should always keep your wits about you among people whose next meal depends on getting a customer.
You can work out the local price in a market or among a group of competing vendors. It is best to start ridiculously low. If you offer, say, 10 rupees, the vendor will toss his head in contempt and you know it is below even the bargaining level.
You can try 20 rupees with the next man. If you next suggest 30 and get a counter-offer, you know you are within range of the right price, and the game has begun.
If there is a local person you have begun to know and who is not interested in the deal, you can ask them what to pay. In Uzbekistan’s Samarkand, I ask the man I have been staying with what the bus fare should be to Shakhrisabz.
Sure enough, the driver asks for three times what I’ve been told. We have no common language but by a sort of noughts-and-crosses game, writing numbers in my notebook and each party crossing out the number and writing a new one, I beat him down to just over the amount my friend has suggested.
He shakes my hand in recognition of a game well played and I sit next to him on the journey. The country is not especially beautiful but snow has fallen on a village in the hills and transformed this most ordinary scene. When I get off, he hands me change; the fare is exactly as my friend suggested.
Conversely, I once got a taxi from the airport at Lahore in Pakistan and the driver told me (in German, the only common language we could find) that at 8pm I was his first fare for the day.
I became nonplussed in southern France years ago when I asked the price of a lettuce and in reply got what sounded like a rude ejaculation.
‘‘ Pardon?’’ I asked. Again the sound, almost aggressive this time and with one finger held up. (It is not only the English who speak louder when foreigners don’t understand.)
‘‘ Un franc.’’ The sound I mistook as rudeness was simply un .
One franc. The thing is, I had never expected to buy a lettuce for 25c.