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]


  1. DML 03/30/2011
  2. Sara Gabrakirstos 03/31/2011
    • tim 04/01/2011
  3. gary 03/31/2011

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