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How Much Is That One Over There?

Is bargaining really ‘fair‘? It’s a fine line when you are travelling – how do you know you are not just being charged tourist prices? And when is it OK to bargain?
When I arrived in Oaxaca, not knowing the correct prices for things – and nothing is marked – I overpaid a few times for simple items. On a rare occasion when I asked a vendor “¿cuánto cuesta?” with produce in hand and a winning smile I could tell I was about to get an inflated price due to a sudden gleam in a seller’s eyes. Then, to add insult to injury, I knew I had been given an incorrect price, but didn’t have enough Spanish to argue my point.
However, these were actually small items, like bread and bananas and chopped fruit, so any discrepancy wasn’t going to ruin me. It was though, very annoying when it happened; however is actually something I have encountered all over the world, and in my own country as well come to think of it, ah hmm taxi drivers!

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Since I have started volunteering for En Vía, I have visited the weavers in Teotitlán del Valle (teo-tit-lan de vy-yeh) many times now. I have listened to the women borrowers as they describe how their small business has been going and their challenges and aims for the future, and how their children are doing in school.

IMG_2514Teotitlán is well-known for its hand-woven wool textiles, mainly tapetes which are dyed with locally sourced natural pigments. Since I learned about tapetes, I have been amazed at the sheer amount of time and effort is put into each tapete the family makes, as a tapete is generally the end result of a group of jobs shared by family members: the purchase of the wool, carding, cleaning and spinning the wool into skeins, dyeing the wool different colours using natural plant dyes, setting the colours with ash and washing the wool again before the actual weaving of the tapete using a loom. Weaving by hand 10 hours a day for 7 days will make one small wool rug, about 1m by 1.8m long. Obviously these artisans know what they are doing as well. If I tried, you could (possibly) come back for your pot holder in about a month…

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Now (and this is the soapbox moment) the piece of a tapete depends on a couple of factors; the colours included – blues (indigo) and reds (cochineal) in particular are expensive colours to use; what kind of design it is and how large the finished tapete is. Each artisan wants to sell their tapete themselves, although this can be difficult as how can they make theirs stand out from their neighbours in a town of weavers, can they get a place to display their wares in the local marketplace? If not and if they are also without road frontage, how can they attract people to their homes to buy?

IMG_2666Sometimes families cannot sell their own tapetes, and so sell to the bigger tapete houses which have a presence in Oaxaca, and on the main road into Teotitlán. This is only done as a last resort as they do not get a lot of money from such sales, and their work is then onsold for 3 and 4 times the price they were paid.

So, this long-winded explanation may have illustrated somewhat the work that goes into some of the products you will fall in love with in Mexico. Whilst bargaining might be an enjoyable sport for some travellers, at the end of the day there is actually a family and an artisan behind these products who needs to make a sale to keep their family fed and their children in clothes and with schoolbooks. If you are going to bargain, then being good-natured about it is important, and also the ability not to demean the other person by offering a price far below they asked.

Recently I saw someone bargain down a tapete from a family seller and offer half the original price. The family finally let the tapete go at ¾ of the original (non-inflated) price. They mentioned to me afterwards that they had not sold anything all week and so needed the money. It meant they had essentially paid themselves nothing for that tapete once all the material costs had been taken out.

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I guess my point is (finally) this: $10 is nothing when you are at home, you could blow it on a muffin and a coffee for morning tea without thinking about it. $10 on the other hand means a great deal to someone without your earning power. When travelling, part of the fun is to meet other people, experience other cultures and exchange in dialog and understanding. And when you get home, whatever you have bought will still be different and have cost you less than anything you could buy at home, and you will have a great story about meeting the person who made your product.
Paying deliberately low prices purely for the satisfaction of ‘winning’ a good deal is not the only way to go…
OK, stepping down from my soapbox now


Disclaimer: I did watch the above transaction recently and stewed about it for a couple of days afterwards. This post is entirely my own thoughts, and does not represent all bargaining situations.

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