Bartering in Africa – bring socks, and other tips

I’m pretty good at bargaining.

From a young age, my mother schooled me in the art of pretending I didn’t really want something, walking away, and knowing when to give in and pay up. I even developed my own trick:

1. Pick your item and lowball it, haggling it down. (Let’s say you get it down to 20 for example.)
2. Pretend you’re also interested in something of similar value.
3. Ask for a deal on purchasing both items. (Let’s say you get two for 30 instead of 40.)
4. Get rid of the second item.
5. Demand the lower price for your first item. (You already know they can let go of it for 15.)
6. Don’t budge, and walk away if they don’t give it to you.

It’s more than a badge of honor to get a great deal; haggling is a truly primitive survival skill — one that you’d be able to use in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s like being able to start a fire or make a compass out of scrap materials (all you need is a sewing needle, a piece of cork, a small magnet and a cup of water). Furthermore, we use it in the business world all the time, whether we’re bargaining for a raise or a house.

Bargaining with guys like the above gentleman outside of Victoria Falls in Zambia is a whole different ball game. The reason for this is that currency isn’t limited to cash. Currency can be the rubber band around your wrist.In this market, and in many others like it all over Africa, the men working in the shops come from villages with few sources of income. Their land is unsuitable for crops, so they can’t farm. What they can do is weave, carve and make all kinds of beautiful objects you’d never find at home (at least not without a thousand-percent markup — minimum).

For men like these, who work all day in the shop, access to basic essentials like pens, shoes, socks and even rubber hair ties is extremely limited. Even if they make enough cash to buy them at full price, going and buying them can be a long, inconvenient trip — and you, the tourist, are likely to have access to nicer stuff than they can get. That’s where the bartering super-skill comes in: a well prepared traveler like you should know that your best bargaining chip may be a bag of socks to trade.

If you’re going to Africa, you may already have considered bringing school supplies and other basics to donate, but also consider hitting up your dollar store for some essentials you can use in place of currency to buy gifts and souvenirs. To you, it may seem like an unfair trade, but everyone benefits: the goods you have access to are more valuable than currency to some markets, so the shopkeepers are happy to trade with you, and you get to save money. All you have to do is make a little room in your suitcase, and you can be an amateur importer-exporter.

Just don’t get too carried away, and play within the “commercial goods” laws.

Here are some ideas for things you can bring to barter with in Africa:

  • Socks
  • Pens
  • Pencils
  • Hair ties and clips
  • Underwear
  • Shoes
  • T-shirts
  • Toothbrushes
  • Razors
  • Hand mirrors
  • Bandages

The list goes on and on. Places where it’s appropriate to whip out bags of trading goods are pretty obvious; often, store owners will ask you for things of this nature outright. If you’re in a market or shop where all the goods from multiple stands are rung up at one register, it might not be kosher, but almost any situation where you’re dealing one-on-one with a merchant is fair game for trading.

Just remember: what you don’t end up trading, donate to a local school, or at least leave it with your hotel and ask them to give it to someone in need. You can buy another bag of socks when you get home.

[Photo by Annie Scott.]

My trip to Zambia was sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent and Sanctuary Retreats, but the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are 100 percent my own.

Use a calculator as a bargaining tool – International travel tip

Always carry a small calculator when you travel internationally. It will save the day when you are trying to figure out how much things cost in “real” money.

Moreover, since math is universal, it will cut across language barriers when haggling in markets — just type in what you want to pay, pass it to the seller, and let him enter his counter offer.

You’ll avoid struggling with the right word for the number, and you won’t end up paying cinquenta dolares ($50) instead of cinco dolares ($5) for that sombrero for Uncle George.

[Photo: Flickr | ken2754@Yokohama]

South by Southeast: Ugly bargaining

Welcome back to Gadling’s series on backpacking in Southeast Asia, South by Southeast. Most visitors in Southeast Asia are on a tight budget. Lucky for you, the prices here are very negotiable. As I’ve learned during the past two months, everything from the price of my guest house, to my tuk-tuk to souvenirs, is up for negotiation. For a traveler living “on a shoestring,” it’s a been a useful skill to master. But sometimes there’s a difference between bargaining your way to a good deal and just plain “ugly bargaining.”

While in Myanmar, I watched in horror as a backpacker haggled with a woman over a dollar of bananas, walking away shouting in disgust that “he’d been ripped off.” In Laos, I listened as a girl berated our minivan driver for “leaving 30 minutes late.” Ultimately, this kind of “ugly bargaining” gets travelers nowhere. When we get aggressive over small sums of money, it makes locals more jaded about their interactions with foreigners. Not to mention the money involved, while small to you, can mean a great deal to a local.

Bargaining in Southeast Asia need not be an “ugly” affair. If done right, it’s an interaction that benefits everybody. You, the traveler, get a good deal and the local merchant earns some much-needed foreign currency. Everybody goes home happy. Wondering how to do it right? Check below for a few tips.

Rule #1 – Everybody Can Win
Bargaining is not winner-take-all. In a good bargain, both the buyer and seller get something of value. Don’t aim to make your bargaining session a contest with winner and losers. You’re trying to make a purchase, not prove a point or show off your haggling-savvy.

Rule #2 – Stick to Your Word
Negotiating for anything is built on trust. If either side feels the other won’t fulfill their terms, it’s much more difficult to agree on a price. Once you’ve settled on an amount, commit to pay for it. Don’t walk away and check elsewhere. Don’t back out. And if you have no intention of completing a transaction in the first place, don’t ask for the price.

Rule #3– Be a Good Guest
When walking around with plenty of foreign currency in our pockets, it’s easy to assume a mindset of superiority. When we shop at home, we expect a particular level of service will come with our purchase. But in Southeast Asia, mass tourism is still a relatively recent phenomenon – English is a second language and infrastructure is often unreliable. When your bus leaves 30 minutes late or the the power is out at the restaurant, freaking out at the staff is poor form. Don’t stand for poor service, but a little patience and a smile goes a long way. It will work out…promise.

Rule #4 – Keep Perspective
Long-term traveling means sticking to a budget. But don’t let your own budget get in the way of the bigger picture. Sure, you might be saving a few bucks, but the gap between your income and the average merchant in Southeast Asia is huge. A week’s wages for you could be more than they earn in an entire year. If you don’t get the price you wanted, consider the extra as a gift for their assistance.

Rule #5 – Smile
Not every bargaining session works out perfectly. Maybe a merchant still managed to get a few extra Thai Baht than you planned. Or you’ll hear another traveler bragging about a great deal that was better than your own. In these situations, remember to smile – a few dollars lost in a bargain isn’t the end of the world.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

Gadling Take FIVE: Week of June 12–June 19

Happy summer. It’s official. The Mermaid Parade is happening in Coney Island today, and Catherine has the scoop on the solstice in Alaska. Hopefully, you’ve snagged a travel bargain. Tomorrow, for starters, take Dad to a National Park for Father’s Day–or take yourself.

  • Annie’s reminiscence of Old San Juan might trigger your own memories of a place you went as a teen.
  • For tips on how to make your life more like travel, Jeremy has advice worth heeding-even if traveling is your middle name.
  • In case Orlando only gives you images of amusement parks, read Tom’s post on what else to do in Orlando. There may not be time for the Magic Kingdom. Next time I go, I want that scenic boat trip in Winter Park.
  • If the world about the news seems too darned depressing, check out Kraig’s post on Art in All of Us. Yes, indeed there are wondrous, uplifting happenings as well.
  • For anyone heading to Morocco, do read Tynan’s latest Life Nomadic missive on the Moroccan hustle. Reading about his experiences trying not to be taken reminded me of the Moroccan segments of Brook Silva-Braga’s documentary, “One Day in Africa.” Being prepared for the everyone is trying to make a deal experience is a wise move. Tynan covers the issue to a T.

A Canadian in Beijing: My Last Day in China

What did I do on my last day in China?

I bought chopsticks.

What can you do in the face of reality? The reality was that I was leaving and the response was to soothe the pain of that reality with retail therapy. And, sad as it sounds, it worked. What’s more, I took home gifts for my loved ones and that felt good. It felt like a bridge between Beijing and Canada somehow.

I guess you could say that I relented and loosened my grip on my desire to be “a local” and promised that desire that I’d revisit it in the future.

Many different markets had been tested in advance of their arrival. I went to The Pearl Markets, the Silk Markets (each offering much more than pearls and silk), the YaXiu Markets and, of course, to the Wudaokou Markets (several times) in search of the cheapest options and best environment for them. . .
My friend Rui suggested the Wholesale Clothing Markets by the Zoo. I had never been there and so we all decided that a new experience for everyone was due. They are geared to Chinese shoppers as opposed to tourists and we were the only foreign faces that I noticed there. With our translating skills, my family was alright, but without any Chinese knowledge these markets would be extremely difficult for a foreign traveller. While they proved to be super cheap, the sizes were also limited, especially for my sister’s fiancé, Steve, who wears size 12 shoe and is over six-feet tall. They also closed early (and I found out that they open at six a.m.!) and so we piled into a cab and headed for more shopping options.

I suggested against the Silk Markets, which I had found to be far too pricey. Even the sign that showed a happy white family turned me off. I mean, how better to tell the tourists that they’re about to get ripped off than to show them smiling pictures of white people pretending they don’t know any better!

The presence of credit card stickers above stalls also proved that these prices were out of control; if they’re willing to accept international credit cards within the stalls themselves, then they had definitely inflated their prices. In fact, I found a shirt there that I had bought at the Wudaokou Market for 30 kuai that was listed at 280 kuai. Just ridiculous. The exact same shirt!

These kinds of “foreigner price inflations” are insulting. In fact, I think “indignant” would be the word I’d use to describe my response. I just couldn’t imagine bringing them there and luckily they were fine with that.

We headed then to Wudaokou first where they found a few things but weren’t quite satisfied. There was still the issue of an impossible task in finding shoes to fit Steve’s feet. Many vendors actually laughed when we told them we were looking for a size 49 or 50 (in Chinese sizes.)

So, we hit the Pearl Markets, this proving to be the most successful location for my sister and Steve. Not only were they able to get the souvenirs they wanted, but also several people could speak to them in English and they were able to operate without me as their sidekick the whole time. They found clothes that fit and had already become quite skilled at bargaining by this point. They came away smiling and laden with clothes and gifts and shoes and knickknacks. It was a successful mission.

The Pearl Markets were probably the best choice for lots of reasons. Not only were the prices better and less insulting, but the environment just outside of the markets was very western with a café (that looked suspiciously like a Starbucks knockoff) equipped with outdoor seating and tables with sun umbrellas. It’s the kind of décor that I rarely see in China and see everywhere in North America.

My sister and Steve wanted to hang out here for awhile and I can see why: it’s familiar. So, for the first time in three months I had an afternoon beer in the hot sun while shaded by the patio umbrellas. I could easily have been in Toronto in that activity. The rest of the seats were all sat in by non-Chinese shoppers. Whoever had thought of this café here was thinking about the tourists, that’s for sure.

Besides, it was good to rest now that the list had been (mostly) crossed off. Everyone was smiling.

I have to admit, though, that I was also peaking about leaving. Smiling on the outside and crying on the inside. Sound dramatic? Yeah, that’s me. Hidden drama at the best of times.

We headed back to the hotel then to get ready for dinner. I put them up (and also stayed) at the Beijing Friendship Hotel. This hotel is one of the oldest in Beijing and used to be the only place where foreigners were allowed to stay in Beijing. Since then, this has changed, but this hotel still holds its grandeur and scope. It is a huge site with several different buildings.

Staying in a hotel at the end of my trip really did solidify the feeling of being a tourist once again. I know that China is not my home, but it had begun to feel that way before I moved into the hotel for four nights. I really hope to regain that feeling in the future – that feeling of China being home – but it wasn’t meant to last this time around.

When we headed for the airport the next day, the drop in my gut seemed like an endless black hole. I kept gulping back tears and nausea and just tried to keep breathing the reality of my leaving in, as though it was a necessary medicine and that I would recover. Recover from the pain of separating from this amazing country, yes, and also recover from the intensity of this tourist marathon.

I’m still working on both recoveries.

I know that I will return to China. I will go back sooner than later, I believe. I just can’t stay away. My language skills were just starting to feel smooth, just starting to whisper the potential of future fluency.

I will definitely return.

Wo ken ding zai lai 我肯定再来。

China, I miss you already.