Friday, July 26, 2013

Haggling in Peru, travel article by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

Dear Readers,
For a change of pace, I'm sharing a personal essay, which is part of my collection, Out of Cebu: Essays and Personal Prose (University of San Carlos Press, 2012). It is available in Kindle and Nook. Enjoy! ~ Cecilia 

by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
Copyright 2013 Cecilia Brainard, all rights reserved

          “Talk to him, will you?” my husband says, standing aside.  He’s referring to the taxi driver in Cusco, Peru.  We’ve just seen the magnificent Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman and Qenko, and now it’s drizzling, we’re tired and want a ride back to our hotel.
          Cuanto cuesta …” I wave toward the city, “Plaza de Armas Hotel.”  My Spanish isn’t great but I look enough like a Peruvian, I figure they won’t jack up prices as badly as they would for my Gringo husband.
          The man casts a glance at my husband.  Diez soles,” he says.
          My eyes grow large in surprise, and with a dash of indignance I protest, “Pero, costar only quatro soles to get here from la ciudad!”
          Either he deciphers my broken Spanish or he catches the indignant tone.  Ocho soles,” he offers.
          I shake my head, straighten up, and call my husband so we can start walking. 
           Now here’s the part that really gets me.  Instead of cooperating, he stands adamantly near the taxi and says, “You’re not really going to walk down that hill, are you?  That’s a long walk down.”
          I glare at him, and motion for him to start walking.  I know it’s a long walk down.  If you’ve been to Cusco, you know that while the view of the city from Sacsayhuaman makes it appear as though the city is nearby, the road zigzags down the steep hill, so it’s a longer walk than it appears. 
          I address my husband, “The man at the hotel said it only costs four soles.”
He stays put.  I head on down the hill.  Then I must have missed something that went on because the next thing I know my husband is calling me, “He’ll take us there for five soles.”
“But the man at the hotel . . .”
“A sole is only a quarter,” he says.
“That’s not really the point,” I say.  “You have to pay the going rate, or else you upset the local economy.  Taxi drivers will start bypassing their own people for tourists.”  I plucked that explanation from my past when I lived in the Philippines.
We get into the taxi.   The taxi driver zig-zags down the hill, sloshing through narrow colonial streets; and it’s farther than I thought, taking longer than I expected, and I can see my husband’s thinking the same thing and I know he’s going to tip the guy. 
“I will kill you if you tip him,” I whisper.  There is an unwritten rule that when haggling, one should not pay more than the agreed-upon price.
 “You have to admit it’s far,” he says, “and gas is expensive.”
          In front of Plaza de Armas Hotel, my husband pays him eight soles, and to more or less save my face, I tell the driver, “Es muy lejos – it’s very far.”
My husband smiles.  “You’re just like your mother.” 
I glance at him.  It’s a complement he gave me.  I suspect he thinks that haggling is a genetic gene that can be passed on from one generation to the next, in my case, from my mother to me.  I’m not sure if he thinks all Filipinos carry this gene, or if he thinks this is something special in my family, some trait that’s deeply embedded in our being so that three decades of living in America has not eradicated the gene.
          I learned how to haggle from my mother. Even though California living has not given me ample opportunity to use this skill, when I’m in a situation that requires haggling, it all comes back to me.
          Growing up in the Philippines, I used to accompany my mother to colorful open markets where she engaged in lengthy, lively haggling, with just the right amount of cajoling and threatening to go shop someplace else.  It was all part of the game.  Vendors expected it and priced their goods knowing they would have to go through this banter.  There’s a lot of instinct involved, a subtle inter-personal exchange.  I myself will not bother haggling with a vendor I do not like.  When haggling you need to have a bottom line idea of just how much the item is worth, which is why it’s important to check out various shops before you embark on haggling.  You also need to know how badly you want the item, although you must never show this.  Your attitude must always be that you can walk away from the item. Don’t engage the vendor in a discussion of the item unless you are serious about buying it. 
Many years ago, my husband witnessed my mother haggling.  He, I and our oldest son were visiting Manila, and one Sunday, we drove to the Los BaƱos area where there are rice fields and charming small towns.  It was raining.  My husband was driving.  My mother was in the passenger seat in front; the baby and I were in the back seat.  As we’re driving through the rain, my mother spotted a woman selling bananas by the side of the dirt road. 
Hija, tell your husband to pull over,” she said to me in our Cebuano dialect.  She spoke English but preferred speaking to me in the dialect, and I had to translate her message. 
The vendor was on the driver’s side.  “Tell your husband to roll down his window, hija.”  Rain whipped into the car.  Then my mother started.  It was like Ravel’s Bolero, starting slow and building up into a powerful crescendo.
          Manang, good afternoon.  Lousy weather we have here, isn’t it?
          “Fit for ducks and fish,” the woman replied.
          “How much does that bunch of bananas cost Manang?”  Mama pointed out a solitary bunch.
          “Eight pesos.”
          “Eight pesos!  So expensive!  How many bananas are there?”
          “A hundred.”
          “Hmmmm, looks like there are only 80 bananas.  Four pesos,” my mother said.
          “There are a hundred bananas even if you were to count them yourself.  But I’ll sell them to you for seven.”
          “Such pathetic-looking bananas.  Look at those bruises.  And so tiny.  They look like a baby’s fingers,” Mama continued while my husband mopped his wet face and hair.
          “Mama, buy the bananas,” my husband finally said.  I knew he had practiced great restraint in withholding any adjective describing the bananas.
          Reluctantly my mother closed the deal at seven pesos.  My husband waded through puddles to get the bananas and put them in the trunk. 
          All the way home, Mama sighed and muttered that the bananas were too expensive, and that there were only 80 bananas in the bunch.  When we arrived home, she looked at the bananas with great sadness, shook her head and slowly went up to her room.
          My husband, for the fun of it, counted the bananas.  There were 104 bananas! 
“What is she going to do with all these bananas?” he asked.
“Give them to neighbors,” I said.
With great delight he reported the figure to my mother, who didn’t cheer up.  My husband couldn’t understand why Mama continued sulking.  I explained that he had aborted her haggling.  She wanted those bananas for six pesos.
On our last day in Lima, we wanted to see the Museo de Oro and the Museo Nacional de Antropologia y Arqueologia.  We were a bit nervous about moving around Lima on our own. We’d heard horror stories about pickpockets and bad people in Lima.  Our passports and money were in the hotel safe.  I wore a money belt.  Even the hotel staff wasn’t supportive and insisted their hotel taxi take us to the Museo de Oro — for five dollars.
The Museo de Oro had a great exhibit of the gold work from the Inca times – headdresses, necklaces, earrings, plus mummies, weavings, ceramics, colonial period jewelry, and an entire floor of guns and military objects.  When we finished and left the museum gate, taxi drivers rushed to my husband.  They quickly understood that we wanted to go to the Museo Nacional and figures were flying:  twenty soles, fifteen soles.  I left the pack, marched back to the museum and asked how much a taxi ride to the Museo Nacional would cost, and the man said seven soles.  By the time I got back to my husband, he was beaming and held a taxi door open for me.  “I did a little haggling.  Ten soles,” he said proudly. 
I didn’t bother telling him how much the museum-man said, but he must have sensed he overpaid because after we finished the Museo Nacional and taxi drivers surrounded him once again, he had me ask the museum people how much it would cost to get back to our hotel. 
Cuanto cuesta el taxi aqui hasta Miraflores?”  I asked.
The two women at the desk looked at each other, then at me and said, “Cinco o siete soles.”
By the time I got back to my husband, a taxi driver was talking him into paying fifteen soles. 
I stepped in, “Las mujeres en museo dicen cinco soles — the women at the museum said five soles.”
The taxi driver looked shocked and spouted off a barrage of Spanish, culminating in, “Doce soles – 12 soles.” 
I could feel my husband starting to buckle.  I stood my ground and confidently insisted, “Cinco soles.”
More Spanish, then “Diez soles,” he said.
 I looked at my husband and said, “Let’s go.”
“Where to?” he asked.  He looked flabbergasted.
          “To find another taxi,” I replied.
“You’re not walking around Lima just to save a few soles.”
“Whose side are you on?” I asked.
Ocho soles,” the man said, sensing there was serious danger he’d lose us.”
We got in.  Lima is sprawling and crowded and traffic is bad.  While waiting in front of a stoplight, the driver pointed out a bus beside us.  In Spanish he started to grumble, “See that bus?  It costs one sole to ride it.  That is what those women in the museum take because they can’t afford to take a taxi.  They don’t know how much a taxi ride costs.  See this street?  Up to this point, it’s already six soles.”
I chuckled at his crankiness, and how he’d put down the museum-women.  But I also thought of how my husband and I had been spending soles carelessly.  The exchange was very favorable to the dollar, and it was very cheap to live in Peru.  Three, six, ten soles didn’t really affect our lives but to this man, maybe it meant more food for his family that night.  I told him to relax, and not to worry.  The way my husband was looking, he’d tip the guy anyway.
And he did, ten soles, and the cabbie was smiling ear to ear. 
“Why do you put me through all that work if you’re just going to ignore the price I negotiate?” I asked my husband.
“I enjoy watching you do it.  Besides I want to make sure I’m in the ball park,” he said.  As we walked toward our hotel, his face lit up, like he’d just had a brilliant thought:  “There are really three prices:  local, tourist, and something in between.  We want to pay the in-between.”



tags: Philippine, Filipino, literature, writing, nonfiction, author, writer, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Peru, Cusco, Cuzco, travel, haggling

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