Monday, December 11, 2006

Shopping in Mexico: LOVE IT OR HATE IT

Okay, some people love it. They love the bargains! The variety! They love the game! I hate hate hate it. Shopping in Mexico or Brazil or Africa at markets. It is such a hassle. I am learning to be much better at it. But I still hate it. Nonetheless, it is a quintessential cross cultural experience. And there are differences everywhere you go.

In Ghana, they shout obruni obruni everywhere you go. There's no way around it. White people just tend to stand out, and they don't discriminate. They do it to everyone. And so you become a target. To them, all white people are chosen of God and blessed with wealth, because they see rich white people on tv and in movies. Clearly the white people's world is so much different than theirs that God must have ordained it. So when white people come, if they can just get their attention, maybe they can actually make a little extra. You are a target and no amount of silence or even looking away will deter them.

In Mexico, it is similar. But here you are the gringo. And gringo's mean money. They come with cash to spend. So all of a sudden, it's "my friend, I have something for you." They say this in Ghana, too, but it takes on a more annoying spin in Mexico, I think. And in Mexico the prices are much higher. In Africa, even if you don't bargain at all, most of the time you are getting steals. Even though the starting price might be cut down to one-third if you made bargaining attempts. But in Mexico, they know Americans can afford more, and they go for it. The scenario is something like this: you show the slightest interest in an item. Bam. They are all over you. And they always have more beautiful items you just have to see.

In Brazil, skin color is so varied that you only stand out when you speak English. So they only hassle you when they hear you speak or if you look foreign or flash money. But then it is full on. And they have the best deals. Here haggling is not so easy. At least to me. Because the prices are somewhere in between Ghana and Mexico. I don't like to take unfair advantage but at the same time, I want to get a good deal. Most of the things I am buying are hand made and somebody worked hard to make them. I actually feel somewhat guilty taking them for such little prices. But at the same time, why should I pay gtossly inflated prices compared to what they might get from someone else?

So what do you do? First, I am learning to never look too excited about anything. Unless I know it is a good deal. For example, in Mexico I found guayaberas at prices almost better than the prices where they are made way south. My Mexican companion Wilbert even commented on it to others that he was amazed the prices were so good. The most expensive of them was $35 and satin. So comfortable! They were all good quality, he told me. So I did not try and bargain too much, though by buying two, I got $5 off each. I bought the third one by itself later, so I paid more.

Second, I go low. They will not sell if you are too low. So just go for it and work your way back up, but know going in how much you want to pay and stick to it. They will not take a loss. they will not sell it if they cannot make money. So you have nothing to worry about.

Third, be willing to walk away. For example, while looking for a particular chess set, I saw a clay painted sun which intrigued me. It was a unique color scheme from the others I have seen. I asked how much it cost. I did not say it with entusiasm. Just tossed it off: Cuanta cuesta? Of course, any sign of interest and we are off. He said "That is a very nice sun, senor. Very special. I make you a good deal. $18. Very cheap." I looked at him, shook my head and said $10. He said, "oh senor, please, it is very nice. $16." I stayed at $10. He stayed at $16. So I said "Your problem is, I don't want it. I just thought it looked interesting. Have a nice day." As I started to walk away, he said "14, senor." I shook my head and kept walking. I went to look at another vendor. A few minutes later he came running after me. "Please, my friend, ok, good deal. $12." I said $10. Finally, I bought it for $10. It helped that I was the first sale of the day because vendors are superstitious about the first sale and believe it is bad luck to lose that sale.

The point is, shopping in these places is tough. That's why I recommend places in Juarez like JJ's Market and Casa Bonita where the prices are set and the owners have reasonable expectations. Nothing I bought at JJ's was more than one-third of sticker. He knew I would buy a lot and come back so he just hit me with great deals right off the bat and it worked. I spent $100 in his store. At Casa Bonita his prices were a little higher, but still reasonable, and he had a good selection. I will go back to both, get what I can and only go to the market for what is not available there, because I hate the hassling crap. But if you want the real experience, you definately have to experience the market once.

Love it or hate it, it is a way of life there. In Africa, watching the natives bargain was a real education. These people were tough. And if you get lucky, they will remember what you wanted and go back instead another day to buy it for you at African prices. Then you will save amazing amounts because the fact they were seeing a white man just made prices double right off the bat (double is generous, usually it was quadruple). In Brazil and Mexico it is harder, but some enjoy the game. Not me. Still, I am richer culturally for the experience.

I in no way want to leave this post without commenting on the fact that these people are mostly genuinely poor compared to most of us. I don't write this to encourage you to take advantage of them. In most cases, the work is worth more than they make. However, I do feel that there is nothing wrong with desiring fair prices in the process, market value, and trying to not let them make you pay much more than most people who know a little bit more about it would have to. They will not sell if they are losing money. So try and get them to a price that is reasonably fair to them and you, and be happy. Trying to push them to make no profit is completely not at all what I have in mind, and I hope no one who reads this will do that.

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