I found a beautiful painted bowl in the small Mexican hut. It was marked at $10, but I wasn’t a new traveler, I was a seasoned pro and I knew better than to pay the full $10.
I offered $5. The owner seemed shocked and countered with the full $10. I insisted and he came to $8. I came to $7 and we agreed. I proudly stashed my extra $3 and was wrapping up the bowl to put into my backpack when I glanced back and saw the owner’s teenage daughter carefully painting another bowl in the back corner of the hut.
Bartering is the mark of a good traveler, right? You’re seasoned and smart, you pay low prices and stretch your money further. Only a schmuck pays full price. Right?
Two years later, I was eating on a restaurant patio near the street in Panama. A man walked by selling a small, carved wooden boat. He walked table to table offering it. My husband and I turned him down immediately, as we’re so used to doing with street hawkers. The table next to us was interested though. They were four Americans, probably retired.
“Suckers,” was my first thought. “He probably didn’t even make the boat,” was my second.
But then I watched. I watched them buy the boat for $15. I watched them ask the man to sign his name on it; which he did, pulling out the carving tools from his backpack. They all cracked up as they tried to pronounce his name. They asked for a picture together, holding the boat. His smile was one of the biggest I’ve ever seen.
“When did I go from seasoned traveler to bitter?” was my third thought.
There is a difference, after all. I’m no proponent of getting schmoozed by street hawkers who force their goods on you, rip you off and probably pick your pockets. But I am a proponent of showing love and genuine interest toward the people you are visiting. And that day, I realized I might have mixed up the two.
The minimum wage in Mexico is about $3.50 per day. The U.S. minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, or about $58 per day. When I bought that bowl in Mexico, I saved myself half an hour at US rates, and cost them an entire day at Mexico rates.
Of course, they probably sell plenty of bowls. They are used to bartering and probably wouldn’t have sold the bowl for a price they couldn’t handle. They still made about two days’ worth of minimum pay on the one bowl. But is it worth it for me to save the money?
So often, we who travel have more than those we visit (*cough* not you Scandinavia *cough*). And while bartering and making smart money decisions is part of the territory, so is compassion and understanding.
I can’t tell anyone where the exact line is between seasoned and bitter, between cautious and considerate. I haven’t found it myself. But I’m looking for it. And I encourage you to do the same. Because that’s the mark of a good traveler, right?