I would like to talk about a subject that is very important to me as a traveller and citizen of the world. – Haggling. Whether you call it haggling, bartering or negotiating is unimportant, it is the use of it that this post is about. The little lady on the right in this picture is an artisan weaver called Erlinda. Erlinda lives and works in a small village called Dos Mangas, a few miles inland from the coast of Ecuador.
Erlinda makes baskets, hats, napkin holders and other items out of Paja Toquilla, a type of straw used for making amongst other things, Panama hats. She buys the raw materials, makes the items, and sells them to tourists in her shop, which is also her home. When the pandemic arrived, all tourism stopped and Erlinda had no income. Like many people around the world, Erlinda, and the community she lives in was devastated. Being self-employed, she received no help from the government, but continued working until she ran out of materials.
As part of our immersion days in our worldschooling program, we ran a workshop at the beach in basket-making, and Erlinda came to teach us her craft. After the workshop she exhibited some of her wares for sale that she had made during the long months of the pandemic. Amongst them was a very nice little napkin holder with a lot of detail. I asked Erlinda how long it took her to make it and she told me it took her eight hours. She was selling it for four dollars, with other items similarly priced.
An American gentleman who was taking part in the workshop took a fancy to it and asked me to offer her three dollars for it. I refused and felt outraged on her behalf. I explained that it was eight hours work and was already very cheap, and I would not ask her to reduce her price as I felt that this amounted to exploitation. He shrugged and said, “she doesn’t have to accept, this is the free market.”
This experience and others like it that I witnessed during the six months we were in South America left me with very mixed feelings about the benefits of global tourism. We wanted to share what we knew about Ecuador and to make it accessible and affordable to people, while bringing business to these impoverished communities, but some of what we saw just looked like exploitation.
Ecuador isn’t a Middle Eastern souk. There isn’t an expectation that people will haggle to drive the price down, this is a practice we have exported there born of a paranoia that we are being ‘ripped off’ by greedy profiteering locals. If you walk past five stalls and see the same item priced at $5 then in all probability that is a fair price for the item.
There are all sorts of threads and forums where people swap money-saving tips for travelling on a shoe-string budget, and that’s fine. But when you are buying goods and services from a people who may be struggling to pay off debts accrued through some of the worst times in modern history, please remember that the tourist pool is much smaller now, and although many traders (out of desperation) will accept your offer of a lower payment, you may be contributing to the decline in wages and living standards of the country you are visiting.