Soft

I’ve been getting soft lately, in the sense that I’ve been failing to bargain effectively or at all, really. To illustrate this, I can tell you that there’s one particular guy who sells cards of drawings that he does, and I actually really like them, but he counts on my buying them so steadily that he waits for me in the same spot or just randomly shows up by my side as I’m walking through town, very frequently now. He recently had typhoid, and I was seriously worried about him when he was gone for a week, came back and told me about the typhoid, and then disappeared again. His drawings are, in fact, really nice, in very colorful pencil, and a totally different style from the usual “man walking in the sunset with a spear” scenes you get here. They are mostly of animals, and there is something about the animals that is somehow funny or poignant—I don’t know, but I really like them, so I buy his cards from time to time.   Despite his randomly showing up these days, asking me to save his sinking ship (Swahili metaphor) by buying cards, which is a little intense, his personality is strikingly calm and different. A lot of the guys selling things near the market are really intense—but this guy, Anthony, is really softspoken and easy to talk to. So I like him, and I worry about him when he’s gone for a week and then I probably spend too much money on his cards.

Then there’s the fact that I found a guy selling dvds who was able to get me a ripped copy of Grey’s Anatomy, which was good news for me, but also led me to meet the overly enthusiastic cd seller who set up shop next to him today. He insisted that he would find me something I would like, first showing me a Dolly Parton cd (okay, I have to admit that he was spot on there) and then Kenyan gospel music, and then a Looney Tunes dvd. Then, seeing that I needed a new wallet, he told me he would go find me one—as that actually seemed useful, I thought about it and told him I would come back later, asking, a wallet made for women? It will be nice? Seriously, I’m getting soft…

I also really let this guy rip me off when I took a motorbike to a village outside of town the other day, feeling somehow bad since he drove around a bit, not totally knowing where we were going, asking several times for directions, and it was quite far. But he probably charged me a little less than double of what he should have, and by that time, I was so stressed about being late, and the sun, and just not in the mood to fight him on it. So I exlaimed like I normally do, “… shilingi??? Ni ghali!” but gave it to him anyway.

I may have turned this softness around today when I asked a boda driver how much he would charge me to get to a certain building in town and then just walked away when he told me the price, saying, “It’s too expensive!” So he followed me up the hill, saying, “It’s a business, we can negotiate!”

But overall, it’s hard to nail down what makes me negotiate or not. An exorbitantly high starting price usually makes me frustrated enough to bargain or walk away. Yet, at the same time, the other day in the slums, watching an impromptu skit on the importance of washing your hands and drinking clean water, one of the actors interjected reasonably, “But what if I don’t have any water???” The skit was overall very engaging and direct, but afterwards the public health officials who had organized it ended up in a conversation with the community members, the community asking for new toilets, which makes you wonder how you practically do a skit on sanitation when the facilities and resources are so lacking. Standing there, in the sun, in the village, basically slums, I was struck again by the extent of poverty in some places here. Feeling a little aggressive, or something, for bargaining over twenty shillings or ignoring a kid who asks me to buy him chai when just the other day I gave the really goofy, smiley kid by the Tuskys near my apartment, who probably knew he was going to break me one day, two bananas. I don’t know what the real difference is, or what made me give that kid bananas and basically ignore the other one, other than maybe proximity, repeated interactions, the tiny bit of a relationship not gone bad, facility. (Ugh, there is research on this; research that will either further cloud or clarify those nuances…)

But being struck by that level of poverty can lead me to feel like a real a-hole when I bargain over ten or twenty or even thirty shillings, wondering sometimes if I’m asking for below the market price. Though I’m pretty sure that rarely happens. Probably the easiest thing, or the practical thing, or the neutral thing, is just to have a flat price in your head that you can use as a point of reference, so you don’t get the tourist price, so that you can live on a budget here. And then I think, “Who cares? This world is too crazy.” Being “neutral” is obviously not a possible thing.

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