Kris Learns to Bargain in Mexico


The time: A Mid Summer day in 1979

When Kris was about 10 years old I took her to visit Tijuana, the first time she had ever left the USA and her first experience with a foreign culture. People who have been to Mexico soon discover a bargaining culture, unlike anything in the US, especially in small shops along the village roads and border cities in Mexico. Bargaining has become so widely known even to foreigners that even wealthy Americans will haggle with a road side vendor over a fifty cent difference in a five dollar souvenir. The vendors take pride in their ability to bargain with the customer; don't expect to outdo one of them; it is their living and they do it all day, every day.

In Mexican tourist cities some of the prices start out at ridiculous numbers, four or more times what the vendor will take, but not always. A few vendors mark prices on the items and won't budge.

I was interested in purchasing a leather wallet, and I was not so much interested in getting a great bargain as to getting a good wallet for a reasonable price. Once you pick up something and look at it closely, you feel an anxious Mexican breathing down your neck. His asking price was 50 dollars, way, way out of line. I watched him carefully as I offered him 10. He immediately responded claiming that was far less than it cost him and continued with a sad story that his family was in great need of the money and he badly needed a sale so he could care for his family, and he promised to give me his lowest possible price, 30. When I saw him come down so far, I guessed that we still had a way to go. I offered him 15. He dropped to 25. I was prepared to go to 20 but, in fact, I really wanted to shop around other stores so I replied with 17, and when he replied 23, I told him I wanted to look around and walked out. He followed us out of the store and down the street and dropped his number to 20. I stopped bargaining, said no thanks, and walked into the next store. He followed us into that store and finally took my arm and told me to give him the 17. I took the wallet and gave him the 17. I was sorry I had moved this far not so much for the money but I really did want to shop more, and I knew it would be an insult to back out now.

Kris was appalled by my behavior, literally petrified and upset with me for haggling this poor man down so far for a wallet that would have cost three times as much in the U.S. She had felt shame, especially when his family was in such need. It was then I attempted to explain the bargaining culture to her, a task that was about as hard as explaining the birds and bees to a teenager. I explained that this man had won the contest and was probably now bragging to his cohorts about this dumb American he had just out bargained. Then I came up with an idea.

I attempted to convince Kris that it would be useful for her to bargain with someone just for the experience. At first she said, "No way!" She had planned to buy a bundle of paper flowers from one of the lady vendors on the street, so I thought this a good time to press her into action. "Okay, " I said. "This will be very simple. Ask the lady the price of five flowers and when she tells you a price, tell her you will give her that much for six." After some convincing that it would be okay, useful, and easy, she made her move.

A little old lady answered, "Five flowers, one dollar." I knew that she could probably buy 10 flowers for a dollar but I remained silent. Kris responded sheepishly, "One dollar for six." The little old lady responded immediately, "Okay", and began counting out the flowers. Kris stopped her at five and said, "It's okay, I will just take the five." The puzzled lady handed her the sixth flower any way.

The experience has brought me many thousands of dollars in pleasure when I remember it fondly over and over, a never ending reminder of the wonderful person who is my daughter.

Fast forwarding about 20 years, March 2005 finds me in the Mexican Yucatan with Pauline and friends, Vladimir and Natasha. A long time has passed since I bargained for a souvenir. I had decided that I would like to bring back one of those neat Mayan calendars, while visiting the ruins of Chichen Itza. Everyone was waiting on me as I looked at a few variations. Asking the price, the lady tells me 250 Pesos, about 24 dollars. I offer her 200. "It’s a deal", she says immediately. Opps! Her fast response made me realized that I had gone way too high. But, Jeez! This is a nice little piece of art! Why should I bicker over a few dollars? Heading back to the car, I spotted another one that I liked even more. The asking price? 7 dollars. I don’t bicker and take it. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a road side stand to look at the hammocks. Arriving back at the car I noticed that Vladimir was carrying a Mayan calendar of his own that he had just purchased, much like the one that I had just paid 24 dollars for. His price? Five dollars. So much for bargaining talents in Mexico.




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