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Trading in the San Blas Islands

Sep 5, 2006

Trading with the natives isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, at least not here in the San Blas. The lure of the mighty dollar has replaced almost all interest in trade goods, though sometimes hunger makes our offerings of rice, oil, and other food stuff more interesting. Some boaters seem to get great pleasure in beating down the price to ridiculous levels—a boat load of lobster for $8, or two huge crabs for $5. I don’t get any pleasure out of paying less than something is worth to me, even if it is a lot of money to the locals. I would rather strike a fair bargain that both sides are happy with. I’m sorry, that’s me. Some people think that it’s naive, but I feel it’s better to pay a little too much than to gouge someone supplementing his subsistence living by bartering with cruisers. In the end, I lose a few bucks, which to me is usually less than an hour’s labor, but which might be several days’ labor to the locals. What’s even less pleasant is that a lot of locals paddle out to ask us for stuff: food, line, fishing gear, clothing, even make up. They obviously need the stuff, but in most cases so do we. Our boats and gear represent unfathomable riches to the locals, and they are used to sharing whatever they have with each other. So, when we say no to a request, it seems odd or rude to them, because we have so much. We try to give what we can, particularly food and necessities, but inevitably we have to say no to many requests, which leaves us feeling less than generous. On some islands the people are very friendly and polite during all of this, but in other places they seem demanding and pushy. We admire the mola ladies who sell beautiful embroidered goods—and they bargain hard. They are learning to survive in the dollar world. The dollar is undermining the foundations of this hunter-gatherer society. Come see it before it’s gone.

john carlisle on 09/28/2006 00:35

Hi John. I really liked this spot. I agree with your comment, " I would rather strike a fair bargain that both sides are happy with." And your general philosophy that hey, we can afford it and most of the venders truly rely on tourists to eek out a living. I'm talking fruits-t-shirts-cabs-trinkets type vendors. I haggle a bit when I'm in foreign (poorer)countries, but as you have reasoned, at the end of the day, we make more than they do and for me, it feels better to have bargained in a gentlemanly way rather than viciously. Now....when it comes to dockside boat repairs of anykind ,I will play hardball. I will tell locals I only talk to the "boss" and we take it from there. Usually, the price is fair.

david hume on 01/26/2007 07:06

We had similar experience in Indonesia a few years ago. the first words uttered as they came alongside our boat were often "what you give me". Regretfully they were mostly the children, so we tried saying to them "what you give us". so when they returned a short while later bearing a coconut we were happy to hand over a pencil each and a tennis ball between them. But they all wanted a tennis ball and we could not explain the principle of sharing to them.

It was the opposite, however in Sudan. Every visiting yacht was "given" a child to act as guide. We were told not to give them money, only perhaps second hand items of clothing. Our guide, a delightful deaf child of about ten years, showed us all the sights of the town, helped to translate in the market, and assisted in the purchase of a traditional wooden comb straight from its owners head!. We gave him a cap and were delighted to see that on three consecutive days it was being worn by different members of his family. We were only asked for one item, and that was by the local school teacher who ased, very politely, if we by any chance had a spare dictionary. We were happy to give him a thesaurus and were much amused next morning when approached by another local with the words "what is your condition today?".

Giving can, and should, be a pleasure but should always be done with caution.