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What’s That Trinket Worth to YOU?

My Travelers’ Tales book, Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune, is finally on the fast track to come out as a Kindle book this year. I came across this excerpt below as I was skimming through it checking for errors to correct. I’m going to see my mom again in the Yucatan in a few weeks, so it seems like a good time to highlight this little story.

Put bargaining in perspective

I recently took my mom down to Mexico with me and we visited the popular ruins of Chichen Itza. The paths leading to the main pyramid are lined with vendors selling lots of junk and some good stuff here and there. Although the vendors are downright mellow compared to their counterparts in Egypt, Morocco, or India, after a while the endless pitches started making me cranky.

My mom, who is a retired high school art teacher, struck up a conversation with a wood carver who was selling replicas of ancient Mayan masks that he had carved himself. Against my better judgement, she only half-heartedly bargained with the guy and ended up paying a fair chunk of change for one of his masks.

She was happy though. She could recognize good workmanship and this was a fine piece. “I know this took him a good eight to twelve hours to make,” she said as she turned it over in her hands, “and he did a really good job. I’m not going to worry whether I paid ten dollars too much or not.”

While I was concentrating on the bargaining game, she was concentrating on the quality. This goes to the key point of buying something while traveling: What’s it worth to you?

For you it’s a souvenir. For the other person, their kids’ school or dinner

I had the good fortune of traveling through Indonesia when the Asian currency crisis hit in the late 1990s. Good fortune for me, but terrible fortune for the people who lived there. Suddenly their money was worth a fourth of what it used to be worth in dollar terms. For those of us with foreign currency, it was a bonanza. We could stay in a 3-star hotel for $10, eat in any restaurant we wanted, and hire a car and driver for the day for less than a short cross-town taxi ride at home.

When it came to bargaining for souvenirs, however, my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I had to go through the motions so everyone could save face, but I wasn’t about to try to shave an extra ten cents off a purchase that was already incredibly cheap. More than once I paid more than I could have if I had bargained harder, but I got items I’m still thrilled with today and the artisans still did okay.

Heed local customs, but don’t forget that the person on the other end of your transaction has a family to feed, a home to maintain, and a desire to better his or her life. Buy worthwhile things that will truly make you happy and settle on a fair price for them. That’s easy to remember and you can sleep well at night.

[flickr photo by Butch Osborne]

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Thursday 31st of March 2011

Your mom is a very wise woman.


Sara Gabrakirstos

Thursday 31st of March 2011

You both made really great points. I mean what is a souvenir worth to someone? And is it actually worth that amount? I think many travelers tend to get bilked in hopes of taking back a memento or a souvenir. I also know that if I were a vendor some place where I knew tourist/travelers would be gullible enough to buy something I made for a pretty penny, I would milk it. I guess as a traveler you should really think about where you are, what it is you are getting, and is your price fair. I think people bargain not because they're figuring the costs/efforts/labor that it took into making this souvenir, but really I think because they expect a certain price, especially in places like Mexico, India, Egypt...etc. If that mask had been carved by the same vendor but then sold to some pricey artisan art shop, I wonder what the cost would be and how much someone would be willing to pay for it then. Just playing devil's advocate here, because while there are wealthier countries in the world, where you expect vendors to mark up the prices for tourists and where you know better than to pay a ridiculous amount of said souvenir because you know you could've gotten it elsewhere for cheaper- in the same respect there tends to be a certain cost expectation in third world countries that anything can be haggled down to the utmost minimum. I completely agree with you and think that you shouldn't haggle any harder than a fair price because these vendors are trying to make a decent wage and maybe we tend to forget what's fair sometimes. That said, beware of swindlers and don't pay for bird seeds.


Friday 1st of April 2011

Thanks Sara. I didn't put India in here as an example because I think I only met one vendor there who seemed even somewhat trustworthy and you feel like you have to bargain with all your might there just to keep from getting robbed. But of course in most places if you're buying direct from the artisan, or close to it, there's a better chance you'll both walk away happy.


Wednesday 30th of March 2011

Many years ago in Playa Del Carmen, my first time in Mexico, I was enthralled by all the wonderful silver jewelry in the stores. As I wandered in and out, looking at the beautiful jewelry on display, a loud, obnoxious voice with a thick New York accent started yelling across the store "Harry, ask 'im whut its wuth, Harry! Ask 'im whut its wuth!" Harry was holding some large silver item in his hands, and obviously his wife was wanting him to haggle over the price; hence her wanting to know what it was worth. My first thought was, would you PLEASE shut up and stop yelling across the store. My second thought....what is it worth to YOU? I personally love to bargain, but in the end, I know what I am willing to pay. I usually do a little homework, check out various vendors' prices and when I start bargaining I know how low I will go. If it is something I really want, then it is worth it to me to pay for it. Discount or not.