How to Bargain – A Beginner’s Guide

We were on Lavalle Street in Buenos Aires, chatting with a money-changer. I say, “we’ve got $500 in $100 dollar bills, what kind of exchange rate can you give us?” He responds that $1 USD: 14.10 Peso is the best he can do. Sheena counters by saying that we had a better offer further down the street. What was the offer, he asks. And at the same time, Sheena says “14.50” (not true), and I say “14.20” (totally true) – completely torpedoing our leverage.

I’m terrible at bargaining. I’m not sure what it is, but I suspect mostly a lack of practice. It just wasn’t something culturally present when I was growing up, and I fear it will probably never be instinctual. Sheena, on the other hand, is great, but not always willing to play the game. I mean, there’s only so much haggling you can do down here before you feel like you’re taking advantage of your stronger currency more than is warranted. In short, we are far from the perfect team.

The first time we really had to confront bargaining was in the Galapagos. We had arrived a week before high season started and we were positioned to get some deals on day tours and inter-island ferries. Puerto Ayora was short on tourists and high on tour companies. We even lucked out and had a great coach in our hostel – Seamus from Ireland. His most valuable advice was to make a plan, and slowly reveal your cards; don’t give away all of your leverage in the first round. This turned out to be pretty solid, and most likely obvious, advice.

We would go around to the tour offices and I would enter alone, asking for the price of one tour. Then we would surprise them with the fact that we wanted two, and should therefore be entitled to a discount. We were successful in getting $5-10 discounts off the official price using this method. But if one surprise is good, three would be even better, right? With inter-island ferries we actually needed 6 passages. Bargaining down the individual price with the buying power of 6 allowed us to save $30. But it took time. Back and forth for 10 minutes, and agreeing to go on certain days, before they buckled. I wouldn’t say I was giddy, but it was nice to have secured the same price that Seamus was able to get the day before.

Knowing what kinds of things are on the table for bargaining is also super important. When we arrived in Ecuador, we really hadn’t ever considered bargaining down the price of a hostel room. A Frenchman staying at our hostel proudly shared with us the (much lower) price he was paying for equal accommodation. Asking if you can have the room for less than the quoted price seemed impossible to us at the time. But if you see that the hostel is not full, and you have paid no deposit, it certainly does no harm to ask.

Helpfully, the same Frenchmen mentioned that in Colombia you could bargain for just about everything, including buses. Armed with this information, we entered bus terminals confidently, calmly going from one desk to the next, playing the prices quoted off of each other. I suppose it helped that Colombia seemed to have buses with empty seats, going to any desired destination, at just about every hour of the day. They had no leverage.

So, for you novices out there, here are my official tips and tricks: 1) Always make a plan by figuring out where your leverage lies. 2) Ask around, and never assume the price is fixed. 3) Have fun with it – people tend to respond positively when you are joking around, or display a good attitude. And as a last resort, try to lower the price one more time by saying, “not even for your [insert nationality here] friend?”

Small business South America

When the zipper to my pants broke yesterday, I was a little bit frustrated. These are my new pants after all; purchased after much searching in Lima, Peru. These are the pants that are supposed to last me the rest of the trip. After that brief moment of annoyance I remembered that I’m in South America, and almost certainly there would be a shop nearby that could fix them. I asked at the hostel if such a shop existed, and indeed it did! There was a clothing repair shop around the corner. It’s a one man operation; a shop with a single sewing machine and a wall of thread. The guy told me my pants would be ready tomorrow at noon (today’s Sunday, otherwise they probably would have been ready in an hour) and it would cost $6,000 Colombian Peso, or about $3.15 USD. Perfect. Sometimes South America is so easy.

Trash, trash, everywhere

South America has a trash problem. Maybe not everywhere (Arequipa had it together), but most places we’ve been have a trash problem. And even more damning than seeing trash on the side of the road, littering beaches, and inside of national parks, is watching south Americans toss wrappers out of bus windows without a second thought. This is truly something that I can’t even imagine doing, but am I just the end product of a successful awareness campaign? As we travel up the Pacific Coast, I’m seeing varying degrees of trash awareness.

Peru seems to be furthest behind, with no public notices advising citizens to deposit trash into bins. I saw a child throw his ice cream wrapper out a bus window. That’s about as low as you get, because it shows that you aren’t even teaching the younger generation responsibility.

Ecuador (the inspiration for this post) is somewhere in the middle. You can definitely see that they are trying. There are signs in every bus urging passengers to deposit unwanted items in the trash can. Many buses even provide plastic bags at each aisle seat for this purpose. On the beaches, ad campaigns convincingly tell the public why they shouldn’t toss their waste on the sand. In spite of all this, we still watched a grown man, a bus company worker no less, throw his entire lunch container out the front door of the bus, item by item.

A plastic straw atop a sand castle – One of these footprints will be washed away by the end of the day, the other will last 1,000 years.

By contrast, in the Pacific Northwest my only connection to littering is seeing “$100 littering fine” and “this highway mile is sponsored by ____” signs along the freeways. But I know this wasn’t always the case, and perhaps we’ve only just come a long ways. Maybe Ecuador is 20 years behind us, and Peru another 20 on top of that. Any opinions? Anyone remember a time when people in the USA thoughtlessly chucked waste out of moving vehicles?

Are you afraid of saying estadounidense?

I had a Canadian recently tell me that “respectable Americans don’t say they’re American while traveling abroad.”  That only “the loud and obnoxious ones are proudly announcing that they are American.”  First off, I was a little shocked to hear this come from a Canadian, but I guess it must make them a little smug knowing that there are Americans out there traveling with maple leaf flags sewn onto their backpacks.  But seriously, to those Americans traveling this way, what is the thought process?  Are you worried that people hate you?  Or do you just want to avoid difficult conversations?  This same Canadian told me bluntly, “all Bolivians hate people from the USA.”  Strong, fear-mongering words…

Here are a few reasons why you should definitely say that you are estadounidense while traveling in Latin America:

  • Contrary to what your soccer-hating friends might tell you, you’re from a nation that can be proud of it’s national soccer team!  And if you’re lucky enough to be traveling during the World Cup, you get to participate in one of the greatest multi-national parties there is.  Poor Canadians have only ever been to the World Cup once (1986)… they had three loses and were dumped pretty unceremoniously from the competition.
  • A lot of Latin Americans would say yes to one of the following statements: I have been to the United States, I have a family member who lives in the United States, or I would definitely love to visit the United States.  Common ground is surprisingly easy when you mention where you are from.  Just the other day, someone told my that they loved the name of our country.  Personally, I think Ecuador is a much better one.
  • All Bolivians do not hate Americans… but some of them might be pretty upset about some choices that our federal government has made.  And that is likely true in all parts of Latin America.  One of the greatest things about traveling is that it broadens your perspective.  Mentioning that you are from the United States gives you an opportunity to learn and maybe bring some of that knowledge back to your own country.  The good news is that most everyone can tell the difference between a country’s government, and the citizens of that country.
  • Lying about your nationality is kind of cowardly…

Vilcabamba – The Gringo Ex-pat Lifestyle

Craig has come down with a cold, so I feel I must take up the mantle of blogging in order to make up for his absence. Unlike me, however, Craig is pretty self-sufficient even when he’s down for the count. He doesn’t wallow or whine, and even wants to help me do the dishes when I’m trying to cook and take care of him. Maybe it’s a man-thing. In any case, he’s much more useful than I am when I’m sick.

Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go on a hike, especially since the forecast is usually rain here in Vilcabamba, a small town that reminds me a lot of Ollantaytambo, except with a whole boatload more of ex-pats.

Sunset in Vilcabamba. Dramatized thanks to some Google+ Photos filters…. whee!

Craig and I have met our share of ex-pats, and have even been asked whether or not we have any desire to become ex-pats ourselves. “Why stop traveling?” seems to be the sentiment behind that question. We’re always joking about settling down somewhere (Isle of Skye, in Scotland, is a place we keep circling back to), but I don’t think either of us has any desire for the ex-pat life, really.

And as our friend and fellow SAE worker, Bryan, says, ex-pats are kind of weird. There’s a certain mindset and character among those that want to settle so far from the familiar… Craig and I could probably never become ex-pats because we have plans for our future; plans that include going back to Seattle and resuming our life in a place that yes, has all the material comforts you could ask for, but is also home.

Becoming an ex-pat is a departure from everything you’ve ever known, and I think the people who end up living in foreign countries are the wanderers and drifters who eventually stay somewhere because they have nowhere better to go. Most didn’t plan on it, but they all ended up, somehow, staying put in a foreign country, perhaps because they never had that feeling of home that Craig and I want to eventually recoup. The pull of the strange and exotic had to have outweighed any other claims on their lives; otherwise, they wouldn’t be here.

Hills surround Vilcabamba. There’s a trace of a rainbow in this picture, if you can pick it out.

It’s always a bit unsettling to come across a town like Vilcabamba, which our guidebook describes as a popular spot among ex-pats. There are almost as many white people as not, and yes, some are tourists, just like Craig and me, but some are permanent residents. The latter are easy to pick out, because they are, for the most part, old, white, men. They like to wear flannel, plaid shirts, and they usually have beards. Sometimes, they seem a bit aimless, other times, they seem a bit obnoxious. Some only speak a smattering of Spanish, while others are fluent. But there is something unsettled about them still… as if they remain wanderers and drifters at heart; they’ve just grown tired.

There is generally among them a disdain for the typical, 9-5 workday life that they’ve left behind in their developed country homeland. It pervades their conversation, and I can feel, sometimes, the condescension, when I tell them that I was a nurse and plan on going back to the grind of eking out an existence among the mindless drones of modern society. It’s an intriguing thought–nobody would claim to enjoy the frantic pace of downtown office workers who rush through 30-minute lunch breaks, nobody likes to say they would rather have a 60-inch flat-screen TV as opposed to a 2-week trip to Nicaragua, and nobody would ever say they’d rather spend 8 hours in front of a computer than outside on a sunny day… and yet, this is what the majority of first-world countries choose.

And even though Craig and I are currently spending our way through a large majority of our life savings on this trip, I wouldn’t automatically discount ourselves from that majority. When I held a 40-hour/week job, I loved being able to buy things whenever they caught my fancy, I loved being able to eat out at fancy restaurants and go to the movies. I enjoy these little luxuries, just the same as anybody else. But why do I enjoy them?

Our hostel’s cat on the second-floor balcony ledge. It’s a hard life.

I just read an article called “Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed,” by David Cain, which claims that the reason for the 40-hour workweek, is to both limit our free time and increase our spending power. The first encourages the second, and so it goes on in a vicious cycle. Some interesting quotes:

“Under these working conditions people have to build a life in the evenings and on weekends. This arrangement makes us naturally more inclined to spend heavily on entertainment and conveniences because our free time is so scarce.”

“I spent much less per month traveling foreign counties (including countries more expensive than Canada) than I did as a regular working joe back home. I had much more free time, I was visiting some of the most beautiful places in the world, I was meeting new people left and right, I was calm and peaceful and otherwise having an unforgettable time, and somehow it cost me much less than my humble 9-5 lifestyle here in one of Canada’s least expensive cities.”

“We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.”

And yet, this same author has a “Bucket List” on his blog, and some of the goals include “Become a millionaire”, “Dine at a ridiculously fancy restaurant”, and “Watch a sports game from a luxury box”. Is he just a total hypocrite? I don’t think so… after all, there’s something to be said for having something to work for. Craig often talks about how much he disliked the 9-5 workweek and how antsy it made him… as if he was always straining at the bit for something better. And although working towards this trip didn’t alleviate all of his antsiness, he admits it helped.

Certainly, traveling the way we are opens our minds to the terrors of Mr. Cain’s stereotype: “…dissatisfied but hopeful, uninterested in serious personal development, highly habituated to the television, working full-time, earning a fair amount, indulging during their free time, and somehow just getting by.” We see a very different way of life down here, even in the more metropolitan areas of Lima or Santiago, that is a bit less materialistic, a bit slowed-down, and a little bit… just a little bit… more genuine.

But I don’t think that just because you enjoy watching Downton Abbey, like to have a cappuccino every day, or want to “Watch a sports game from a luxury box”, doesn’t mean that you’ve been engineered by “Big Business” to become the perfect consuming machine. It might, possibly, mean that, just as I was 6 months ago, you’re entrenched in a life that is so crammed with knitting and Netflix and baking the perfect sugar cookie, that anything outside of that comfortable sphere doesn’t really register.

Cat perspective.

So maybe I should cut those gringos a little slack. Perhaps they’ve found something down here that they couldn’t find amid all the noise and bustle of their home countries. Perhaps I’ll find something for myself from my brief foray into their lifestyle. That’s the idea, after all, isn’t it? To take a piece of the wildlife and nature and people that we encounter on our adventure, and bring it home with us.

Something to remember when I’m having a bad case of the Mondays back home. View from the balcony terrace in our hostel.

Latin america wiki wormhole

You know that moment when you have a question (why are the flags of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador so similar?) and you go to wikipedia for the answer?  But that answer isn’t enough is it?  You have to find out what Gran Colombia was all about, and how did Panama end up separating from Colombia (hint: heavily influenced by the USA), how did Bolivia end up loosing so much land, and how did Arica become part of Chile and so on and so forth… Latin american history is complex and interesting and we’re heading north, right into the richest (craziest) part of it all.

What is the USA?

I’ve been talking about the United States a lot lately.  It’s very difficult to explain how such a big, diverse country works.  An important difference seems to be that we have states, and in some ways, our states are similar to other people’s countries.  In other ways (foreign policy for example), our states are different since we’re only one voice out of many (and we have the federal government).  It’s a different model for a country than most European’s are used to.  I’ve enjoyed thinking about it, discussing it, and honestly, trying to refine my own opinion about my country.

People often assert that Americans are this way, or that way.  I have to try to explain that we are all ways.. I found a great article here.  This seems to hit home for me.  A population density map seems to help explain things too (found here).

I’m positive that I will continue to think about my own United States-ian-ness (estadounidense in Spanish, because we are all Americans) while traveling, so I’m going to put all of these posts under a common category – The View from Here.