Soundtrack for an afternoon stroll:
“Yes, madame, where you going?”
“Hallo… yes? Come looking my shop? Special price, only you.”
“Taxi, ma’am, taxi? TAXI? Where you going? Want taxi? TAXI? TAAXI!!??… You clearly can’t focus on anything else with me doing this, so it must be working and I will not stop hollering at you until you drop whatever you’d planned and get in my car just to make me stop yelling!” (Okay, I added that last part. Consider it subtext.)
Welcome to any tourist town in the “developing world”. Welcome also, to the wildly inflated bargaining dance.
It’s interesting to me how unaccustomed to the street haggle I’ve become, with just a few years of not leaving the west. It’s a strange feeling, being seen as a rich foreigner, or, to borrow my Swiss travelling companion’s term, a “walking ATM”.
It’s also incredibly humbling to pause for a moment and realize that the perception is rightly so, when in many of these places, locals are providing for families on just a few dollars a day. The scrambles for attention and exorbitant price quotes aren’t intended to be rude or abusive. You’ve simply entered a different culture, where you’re responsible for your own boundaries, and where even locals go into each transaction expecting a good nature’d price jostle.
I didn’t make it into town until about 4pm today. And when I did, I noticed I was feeling a little reserved. I was working on my computer all day, and feeling rather stuck in my head. I am also keenly aware of my budget on this trip, and found myself shying away from any potentially costly social wrestling matches.
I didn’t come to Bali just to torture myself with the world within my skull, though. Little by little, I tip- toed into engagement.
“Selamat Sore, Ibu!” (Good afternoon ma’am), I’d call to the beautifully leathery skinned grandmas, who manned their stalls with visible years of laughter and tears etched into their faces.
“Tidak sekarang, terima kasih!” (Not now, thank you), I’d smile and reply to the endless offers for clothes, food, massages, taxi rides, trinkets.
And finally, when a beaming 5 foot woman who soon introduced herself as Lulu asked me to follow her into her shop, I agreed.
Lulu was a firecracker. An endless stream of rapid fire questions, comments, and laughter, in a mix of Indonesian and English that somehow aligned quite well with my toddler-level local language proficiency.
“Saya menulis. Saya tidak mau lupa.” (I’m writing this, I don’t want to forget) I said, taking out my notebook to add the word lucu (funny). Lulu’s face was all smiles, as she became both shopkeeper, and guru bahasa Indonesia.
We spent the rest of the afternoon talking, laughing, teaching, learning, and I filled pages of my notebook with useful words for colors, textures, common phrases. I didn’t really love any of Lulu’s clothes, but I did want to buy just a little something in thanks for her time and teaching, and we’d become so cordial by this point, that I simply told her so.
Lulu dove deeper into the stacks of merchandise, and together we hunted, determined to find something I’d love (and not regret having to carry aroud in my backpack for the next 3 months). Next thing I know, Lulu’s magical selective hearing had kicked in, and “just one small thing” became “okay, so you want these four dresses and this cardigan?”.
In the past, I’d’ve probably become frustrated and panicked that I’d never get out of this shop without being tricked into a whole new wardrobe. Today I just laughed, and Lulu laughed too.
Eventually, the magic of Bali surfaced a dress that I did absolutely love. And since you don’t ask for price until you actually want to buy something in bargaining economies, now that climactic dance would begin.
We haggled. I scoffed. She told fibs that were quickly revealed. We each pleaded. We put on our theater masks and performed with great style. For the first time in my years of travel, the tourist-trap haggle took on a deep sweetness of shared humanity. I realized I wasn’t just buying a dress. I was buying language lessons, cultural immersion, the contagious effervescence of this little Balinese woman. I was buying the connection with what matters, that I embarked on this whole journey to find. For $6, it was the deal of the century.
As I waved goodbye to Lulu and her husband and they sent me off with the warmth of new family, I realized I was right to be afraid of being ripped off. Not by the shopkeepers, but by my own fears. My resistance to dive in had almost robbed me of a profound life experience. My hesitation had tried to steal from me the magic of Bali.
“Madame, come! Look! You want!” As long as I choose to travel, those calls will be there. Often enough, my own isolating worry will likely show up as well. Now, thanks to Lulu yang lucu (Lulu the funny one), I know which one is actually a threat.