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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Bargaining Power

Face it. Most women like to shop.

But shopping at handicraft markets around the world is akin to shopping for a used car. There's a lot of haggling back and forth over the price, which has a tendency to put off some people that are accustomed to paying the advertised price. But if you don't play the game, you'll not only walk away with a bigger hole your pocket, but you'll also contribute to further price inflation for future tourists.

But, there are strategies you can use to help come to a mutually agreeable price and not endure snickers from vendors behind your back.

Do reconnaissance. Check out what products the airport gift shops carry when you first arrive in the country. Note the prices on items you like, and never pay those amounts in the market. Goods at airport gift shops, even here at home, are way overpriced--the markup can be as great as 300 percent.

Shop Around. Most vendors at a handicrafts market carry the same stuff. As you wander past the stalls, casually ask the price of the things you're interested in, but don't linger. Prices at the perimeter of the market tend to be higher, so keep going further. The price invariably goes down.

Never accept the first price. If you are ready to try your hand at bargaining, the first price is ridiculous, and the vendor knows it. Just smile, and say, "no thanks."

Ask for a discount. After the first price is given, ask for a discount. You might have a vendor say, "How much will you pay?" I usually ignore this question, and ask, "How much is the discounted price." The figure they tell you is the real starting price to start the haggling process.

Offer one-third to half of the asking price. Start with a low figure. The vendor might laugh or try to convince that you've offended him/her, but don't let this ruffle your feathers.

Walk Away. I can't tell you how many times I've walked away from a price that I felt was too high, and suddenly it dropped significantly. At one stall in Ecuador, the starting price on a blanket was $40, but suddenly dropped to $10 when I walked away.

Buy from a man. I can't put my finger on it, but it seems like a get a better deal when I buy from a male vendor. It's not that he succumbs to my feminine wiles, I just think that female vendors drive a harder bargain.

Buy in Bulk.
Often times, you can get a deeper discount if you want to buy several items once you've settled on a price for one object. If one object costs $2, ask for three for $5.

Have fun. Never yell at a vendor, or get angry. That never gets you anywhere.

These are just a few suggestions for jump starting your confidence when shopping abroad, although there are more ways that may be just as or more effective.

My friends, Jennifer and Adrianne, developed a team bargaining method in Ecuador. If either one of them were interested in something, she would ask, "Do you think it's my style?" The operative word--style--would indicate that bargaining was about to commence. The friend would step up and say that it wasn't her style, examine it closer for flaws, and they'd try the walk-away method.

That worked well until the last day of our trip. Jennifer was enamored with some black and white chulucana pottery. She was determined to buy it, and she wore her eagerness openly. I asked her if it was her style. She said "Oh, yes!"

Adrianne and I just looked at each other, and knew she was in trouble. Sure enough, the total came to $33 for several pieces, and she couldn't even get $3 off the price to make it an even $30.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth

The equator lies about an hour's drive north of Quito. But until the invention of GPS navigation, the true "line" between the north and south hemispheres was as scientific as someone building a monument and claiming it was located at the equator.

Various markers have come and gone in the modern age, but only one lies exactly on the equator, and it's not the more popular site called Mitad del Mundo (Spanish for the Middle of the World, which is off by about 240 meters.

Then along came the Quitsato Project--scientific research that began in June 1997 in an effort to establish the exact location of the imaginary line. As it turns out (big surprise), ancient cultures had already plotted the equator exactly. They had a complex knowledge of astronomy, which helped them plot agricultural calendars, climates, seasons and seasonal festivities.

The Quitsato Project found links between various archaeological sites, including one called "Catequilla," which is located at ground zero: latitud 0˚0'0". Although its significance had been lost over time, the research confirmed that the location of this place was not a coincidence.

To raise money for more research, and "to rescue, renovate and dignify the concept of the Middle of the World, which is seated at the base of the cultural identity of the Ecuadorians and their history," the group has built a giant sundial on the North Panamerican Highway between Quito and Cayambe, which marks the exact middle of the world. In exchange for a small donation, you can straddle the equator, with one foot in the north hemisphere and the other in the south.

The sundial measures 177 feet across, and has a tall orange pole in the center that marks the hour and month according to the transit of the sun. Even better, the structure can be observed by satellite thermal images.

Unfortunately, despite it's size and easy-to-find location, our driver had no idea where it was. When we told him we wanted to visit the site, he was baffled. He told us a police officer had directed him to another spot outside of Cayambe. When we got there, we saw an abandoned building with a globe in front.

One of my travel companions, Jennifer, knew instantly that we were in the wrong place. "No," I translated for her. "It's suppose to have a big sundial."

We asked the driver to call the phone number we had for the place, but he said he didn't have cell service in the mountains where we were. (I turned on my cell phone and got a perfect signal.) Then he said he didn't have minutes left on his phone card inserted. And wouldn't you know it, my cell phone didn't work properly (or I just couldn't figure out the right country and city prefixes).

We took a few pictures at the wrong place (see photo). I thought we had no chance of seeing the sundial, so made the most of the situation. Jennifer suffered miserably through a few photos at the fake equator, which we later deleted at her request.

And after a game of good cop, bad cop, the driver said, "Well, there is this one place I know about."

Perhaps he thought we would complain to the hotel that arranged the trip between Otavalo and Quito, or perhaps he thought we stopped in Cayambe for directions (when we requested a pit stop). Either way, he pulled off the road at Kilometer 47, and after peering skeptically at the site, we discovered we were in the right place.

Our driver explored the area with as much interest as the crazy gringas, staring intently at the scientific displays inside the orange tube. While he didn't apologize to me, he admitted that he thought we were confusing this spot with the ancient site, Catequilla, which was further away.

In the end, we all left with some cheesy photos, and as the Quitsato web site states, "a new perspective on our planet, one with balance and unity."

Furthermore, balance was restored between us and our driver, and we returned to Quito happy...and he made it home in time to watch Ecuador beat Chile 1-0 in soccer in a 2010 World Cup qualifier.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Animal Attraction

"How much for that chicken?" I asked a man who was strolling through Otavalo's animal market with a live chicken under his arm.

"AHHHHH,"he responded shoving the bird in my arms. "It's a great chicken. Look here, under the wing. It's a beautiful yellow color. This is a national chicken. There's nothing better."

"But how much?"

"For you, $15."

I had no idea what I was going to do with a live chicken, but the market was an incredible ethnographic experience for my first morning in this highland town nestled in a valley between a cluster of dormant volcanos.

At six o'clock in the morning, an empty field on the outskirts of town begins to fill up with trucks filled with cows, horses, pigs, chicks, ducks, guinea pigs, rabbits, kittens, dogs, and more being brought to auction. Crowds of people, whether buying or selling, meander through the mud and muck checking out their future meal.

A gigantic pig went for about $300--roughly $1 a pound, I'd guess. I think the man who bought it should have had a discount. The critter wasn't behaving so well, so it took three people to wrap a rope around its neck. It may have been the same pig that I later heard squealing loudly on the street. The owner kicked it a few times in the head and shoved it in the back of a truck.

I inquired about a turkey ($38), then a guinea pig (only $2!).

Sadly, the guinea pig is considered a food item, not a pet. And the price goes up to around $6 during holidays like Mother's Day. This is surprising, considering there seems to be a surplus of these little furry rodents in the surrounding countryside. A nearby lagoon is named after the cuy (its quechua name) due to its proliferation in the area.

My travel companions, Jennifer and Adrianne, considered buying one for Jennifer's birthday. We really weren't planning to eat it, but we imagined that it would have been fun to put it on a leash and lead it around town for the day, then sell it to someone else!

We left the animal market empty handed, but I caught myself a runaway kitten on the way out, which I returned to its vendor. It may have been the same kitten I heard mewing from inside a woman's bag as she walked down the street on her way home to solve a mouse problem.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Not Lost in Transaction

With the economy of the United States weakened under the pressure of the financial crisis, decreases in the value of the U.S. dollar against foreign currency has negatively impacted American travelers abroad. Compared to a year ago, the dollar has lost 10 percent of its value against the Euro, for example, despite temporary rebounds. On top of the bad news about exchange rates, travelers incur fees and service charges for foreign currency exchanges.

However, there are places where the dollar is not only relatively strong,but also considered legal tender, eliminating those pesky fees and exchange rate headaches altogether.

Panama has been accepting U.S. dollars alongside its balboa since making an agreement with the U.S. government in 1904. On a recent trip to Panama, I breezed through the international airport—bypassing the currency exchange booth—into a waiting taxi. The driver happily took my $4, and I got a jump start on my vacation. And, I might add, the $22 oceanfront room on Boca Brava Island was easy on my pocketbook.

Ecuador (2000), El Salvador (2001), and East Timor (2000) all adopted the dollar. The former members of the U.S.-administered Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, which included Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands, chose not to issue their own currency after becoming independent, having all used the U.S. dollar since 1944. Two British dependencies also use the U.S. dollar: the British Virgin Islands (1959) and Turks and Caicos Islands (1973).

Today, I’m heading to Ecuador. I read a report that the trouble in the U.S. has caused prices to go up all over the country. I'll find out and let you know in the coming days.